Newswise – The Neanderthals, our closest relatives, became extinct between 40,000 and 35,000 years ago. Since the discovery of the first Neanderthal fossil 165 years ago, scientists have learned more about Neanderthals – including their culture, sociality, ecology, diet, fire control, production and use. tools, physiology and even their genomic code – than on any other Neanderthal fossil. other non-human hominids. Here, Spanish researchers use a very original approach – a scientific “role play” – to piece together a new element of Neanderthal behavior: cooperating with group members while using fire and tools to catch chubs, birds. of the crows family, from their nocturnal dormitories inside the caves. . Their results are published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.
Neanderthals are known to have eaten plants, mushrooms, crustaceans, grilled pine cones, and the flesh of stranded dolphins. At the same time, they were major advanced predators that hunted mammals with a range of techniques, from ambushing with spears to trapping or hunting. It is also increasingly evident that they regularly caught birds in flight, such as birds of prey, pigeons and members of the raven family.
“Here we show that the Neanderthals probably preyed on the chubs, birds that spend the night in caves, the preferred shelter of the Neanderthals. We reconstruct how Neanderthals could have used fire to dazzle, lock up and catch flying chubs at night, ”says first author, Dr Guillermo Blanco of the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid.
Two species of chough are currently found in southern and central Europe, North Africa, the Near East and Central Asia – a distribution that significantly overlaps the former range of Neanderthals. Herds roost at night in caves and rock crevices. As caves are rare, craves would sometimes have shared them with Neanderthals.
Cut marks on crave fossils
Blanco and his colleagues began by reviewing the literature on bird fossils found in caves that also contained Neanderthal fossils or tools. They confirm that coexistence between Neanderthals and craves was common: in Europe, chubs are among the most abundant bird fossils found in Neanderthal caves. Particularly in the Iberian Peninsula, fossil chubs often showed marks of cutting from so-called “Mousterian” stone tools, produced by the Neanderthals between 300,000 and 35,000 years ago.
“These cut marks are strong evidence that Neanderthals caught and cut chubs. The meat of the chubs would not only produce calories, but also host micronutrients, while their shiny black feathers and yellow or red beaks and claws could be used by Neanderthals for personal decoration, ”explains co-author Dr Juan J. Negro of the Estación Biológica de Doñana in Seville.
Between 1988 and 2020, the authors located 185 chough roosting sites across Spain, about a third of which were located inside caves, crevices and sinkholes. Most of the roosting sites have been used year after year, providing shelter for 3-737 chicks each.
Role-playing game for science
The authors and their colleagues then used a sort of scientific “role-playing game” to find the best way to catch craves through trial and error. In teams of two to ten, the “Neanderthals” would sneak up at night on perches with rope nets, ladders, and lamps to mimic torches – all tools the Neanderthals could probably build. They recorded the characteristics of the dormitory, the size of the team, the strategy and tools used, the reaction of the chicks and the number of catches. The birds have always been released unharmed. In 296 trials conducted at 70 roosting sites, researchers were able to catch 5,525 chubs.
“We conclude that chubs would have been particularly vulnerable to Neanderthals if they used artificial light, such as fire, in caves at night,” says co-author Dr Antonio Sánchez-Marco of the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont in Barcelona. “We show that when they are dazzled, the chubs try either to escape to the outside, in which case you can catch them with nets through the entrance, or to flee towards the ceiling, where you can often. catch by hand. Two to three chubs would provide enough energy to make a full meal for an adult Neanderthal, while a few skilled hunters could easily catch 40-60 chubs per night.
The authors argue that the necessary social, cognitive and bodily skills would have been well within the grasp of Neanderthals, who lived in groups of 10 to 20 adults plus their children, had larger brains than modern humans, and were anatomically better. suitable for climbing than us.
“Over the past decade, research has shown that Neanderthals were much more versatile in their behavior than previously thought. Our study is a good example: we were able to reconstruct that Neanderthals probably had another unsuspected skill, namely to trap birds in their roosts. Given their wide variety of behaviors, it becomes more difficult – as well as urgent, given the ongoing extinction crisis – to explain why Neanderthals disappeared, ”concludes Blanco.