How catching birds with bare hands could indicate Neanderthal hunting tactics

Juan Negro crouched in the shade just outside a cave, carrying his headlamp. For a brief moment he was not an ornithologist at the Spanish National Research Council’s Doñana Biological Station in Seville. He was a Neanderthal who was determined to catch dinner. While he waited in the cold, dark hours of the night, crow-like birds called choughs entered the cave.

The “Neanderthals” then crept in secretly and started hunting.

This role-playing game idea started with butchered bird bones. Piles of ancient jackdaw bones, indented by tools and teeth, have been found in the same caves that Neanderthals visited, suggesting that ancient hominids ate the birds. But catching jackdaws is difficult. During the day they fly far to feed on invertebrates, seeds and fruits. At night, however, their behavior turns them into practically sitting ducks. The birds roost in groups and often return to the same spot even if they have been disturbed or hunted there before.

So the question was how could the Neanderthals have managed to capture this bird prey?

To find out, Negro and his colleagues decided to behave like the Neanderthals. With bare hands along with butterfly nets and lamps – proxy for nets (SN: 4/9/20) and fire (SN: 02/20/14) that Neanderthals might have on hand — teams of two to 10 researchers snuck silently into caves and other places across Spain where the birds roost to see how many jackdaws they could catch.

Researchers in Spain are trying to catch jackdaws with their bare hands at rest stops like this building. The effort was part of a study to see if Neanderthals could have successfully hunted the birds.JM Garcia

Using flashes from flashlights to resemble fire, the “Neanderthals” blinded and confused the jackdaws. The birds usually fled into dead ends of the burrows where they could be easily caught, often with their bare hands. Hunting expeditions at 70 locations have captured a total of more than 5,500 birds, researchers report Sept. 9 Frontiers in ecology and evolution. The birds were then released unharmed. It was “the most exciting research” Negro has ever done.

The results show that teamwork can capture choughs at night without fancy tools, and provide a likely possibility that Neanderthals may have captured choughs. But the actual bird-trapping behavior of Neanderthals remains unknown. If Neanderthals did indeed hunt this way, it contributes to claims that their behavior and ability to think strategically are more sophisticated than they are often given credit for.

Red-billed jackdaws, caught as part of an experiment to see if Neanderthals could have captured the birds, sit in a sack. The birds were released unharmed.William White

“Regular capture of jackdaws by Neanderthals implies a deep knowledge of the ecology of this species, prior planning for their conservation, including acquisition techniques, and the ability to plan and anticipate future dietary needs,” says Ruth Blasco. As a taphonomist at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution in Tarragona, Spain, Blasco is an expert on Neanderthal diets.

She notes that such role-plays are “often used by scholars as valid analogies to infer processes that took place in the past”. For example, reenactments using replica wooden spears have suggested that Neanderthals may have hurled the weapons to hunt prey from afar (SN: 01/28/19).

The researchers simulating jackdaw hunting used butterfly nets to catch birds fleeing sites with narrow entrances, as well as larger nets that partially covered larger openings. But “the easiest thing was to grab the birds by hand,” says Negro.

“You have to be intelligent to catch, process, roast and eat these animals,” he notes. Previous studies have shown that Neanderthals may have been similarly adept at foraging for seafood (SN: 03/26/20). “We tend to think that [Neandertals] were brutes without intelligence,” Negro says, “but in fact evidence is mounting that they were very close homo sapiens.”

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