About 115,000 years ago in what is now present-day Poland, a large bird ate a child. As Laura Geggel at LiveScience reports, it’s not known whether the bird killed the Neanderthal child or happened upon its body and scavenged its remains, but two tiny finger bones found by paleontologists tell a gruesome tale, all the same.
The two phalanges, each about one-third of an inch long, were found several years ago in Ciemna Cave (also known as Ojcow Cave) along with an assortment of animal bones. When researchers took a closer look at the cache they realized two things: that those two digits came from a hominin species and that the bones were dotted with holes. “Analyses show that this is the result of passing through the digestive system of a large bird,” Paweł Valde-Nowak from the Institute of Archeology of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków says in a press release. “This is the first such known example from the Ice Age.”
The bones are too deteriorated to perform DNA tests on, but the researchers say they are certain that the digits come from a Neanderthal youth between the ages of 5 and 7, and their work will be detailed later this year in the Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology. “[We] have no doubts that these are Neanderthal remains, because they come from a very deep layer of the cave, a few meters below the present surface,” Valde-Nowak says. “This layer also contains typical stone tools used by the Neanderthal.”
It’s not clear how the bones ended up in the cave and whether Neanderthals put them there or if they were deposited by the bird. It’s possible that the Neanderthals only used the cave seasonally and wild animals used it the rest of the year.
Prior to this find, the oldest known remains of human ancestors or relatives in Poland were three Neanderthal molars dating to 52,000 to 42,000 years ago. According to Valde-Nowak, Neanderthals likely first appeared in Poland—and in Eurasia as a whole—some 300,000 years ago.
The lingering question, however, is what kind of bird could attack and eat a human child? The researchers don’t address the topic, but Sarah Sloat at Inverse reports that the fossil record shows other instances of hominin children becoming bird food. She reports that the remains of the Taung child, a 2.8 million-year-old Australopithecus africanus found in the Republic of South Africa in 1924 and reanalyzed in 2006 shows puncture marks below its eye sockets consistent with eagle talons. In fact, today's African crowned eagle is known to prey on large monkeys that weigh about the same as a human child. Typically, the birds kill their quarry on the spot, only taking bits and pieces back to the nest. If a similar eagle killed the Neanderthal child, that would certainly explain why only two small finger bones were found together.
When you dig into it, there’s actually somewhat of a rich history of avian hunters gobbling up children. Just a few years ago, researchers found evidence that the Maori legend of Te Hokioi, a giant eagle that snatched children, was likely based on a real species as well. CT scans of the bones of the large Haast eagle, which went extinct in New Zealand about 500 years ago, showed that it was a predator, not a scavenger, and had talons strong enough to pierce a human pelvis.
Even today, there are occasional reports from Alaska of Thunderbirds—eagles the size of small airplanes—including one reported earlier this year, though there's no concrete evidence such a bird ever existed.