To Understand Neanderthal Night-Hunting Methods, Scientists Caught Thousands of Birds With Their Bare Hands in Spanish Caves

Researchers captured more than 5,000 birds to learn how our now-extinct ancestors foraged for food

A reconstruction of what a male Neanderthal may have looked like. The reconstruction looked like a man with a thick beard and mustache, and his hair is tied back.
Neanderthals, our closest human ancestor, went extinct 35,000 to 40,000 years ago.
  John Gurache/Chip Clark via Wikicommons under Public Domain

Since the first Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis) fossils were discovered in the 1800s, scientists have done extensive studies on how these hominids lived. Researchers previously thought the early hominin only slept at night and hunted during the day. However, new findings suggest that Neanderthals worked together to hunt birds at night. They even used tools—like fire torches and nets—to forage for choughs, a cave-dwelling bird belonging to the corvid family, reports Maddie Bender for Vice.

To simulate how Neanderthals may have foraged for food at night, researchers in Spain traveled to caves and used nets and lamps to capture the roosting birds. The study was published earlier this month in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

"Here, we show that Neanderthals likely preyed on choughs, birds that spend the night in caves, the preferred shelter of Neanderthals. We reconstruct how Neanderthals could have used fire to dazzle, corral, and grab flying choughs at night," says Guillermo Blanco, a researcher from the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, in a Frontiers statement.

Neanderthals, our closest human ancestor, went extinct 35,000 to 40,000 years ago. They hunted mammals—like red deer in the summer and reindeer in the winter—using sharp, wooden spears and sewed clothes from the animal hides. There is also evidence that Neanderthals hunted various birds, including birds of prey, members of the crow family, and rock pigeons, according to the statement.

In the new study, researchers focused on how Neanderthals hunted choughs, which roosted in caves our ancestors used for shelter. Scientists first conducted a literature review to find out how many chough fossils were found in caves also containing Neanderthal fossils or tools,Vice reports. In Europe, chough fossils were abundantly found in Neanderthal caves, especially in archeological sites in the Iberian Peninsula. In nine locations within the Iberian Peninsula, chough remains had char marks, bite marks or cut marks from tools, per Vice.

Then, the team decided to put their hypothesis to the real test. For several years, the researchers visited existing caves and learned how to catch choughs by hand under the cloak of night. They used lamps to surprise resting birds and simulate torches that may have been carried by Neanderthals looking for a quick meal. All birds were banded and released unharmed after their experiment. In 296 experimental trials at 70 chough roosting sites, scientists caught a total of 5,525 birds.

 "We conclude that choughs would have been uniquely vulnerable to Neanderthals if they used artificial light, such as fire, in caves at night," says study author and paleo-ornithologist Antonio Sánchez-Marco, a paleo-ornithologist of the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont in Barcelona, in a statement. "We show that when dazzled, choughs either try to escape to the outside, in which case you can catch them with nets across the entrance, or flee upwards to the ceiling, where you can often catch them by hand. Two to three choughs would yield enough energy to be a full meal for an adult Neanderthal, while a few skilled hunters could easily catch 40 to 60 choughs per night."                                             

The birds would have made a nutritious meal for the early hominids, especially the red-billed chough which has the highest concentration of carotenoids, an essential micronutrient, Vice reports. The behaviors and social skills needed to capture the birds also align with how Neanderthals lived socially in groups consisting of 10 to 20 adults along with their children. Because choughs are difficult to capture during the day out in the open, the hominid's night hunting habits reveal impressive details about their anatomical, technological and cognitive abilities.