Researchers Role Play Neanderthals Hunting, In the Name of Science

A recent research study published in the online journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution has thrown up exciting new evidence about collaboration on complex tasks amongst our closest ancient human relatives, the Neanderthals. The study results suggest the surprising possibility that Neanderthal hunting also took place at night, meaning they were also nocturnal hunters, which has never been considered until now. The study also provides exciting new insights into the Neanderthal diet and their use of fire and fire torches.

Nocturnal Neanderthals Hunting: The Capture of Cave Crows

Juan-Jose Negro, the co-author of the study, was quoted by Vice, as saying, “We extended the niche of Neanderthals…. Nobody thought they would do anything but sleep at night, when they would actually forage and go out for dinner.”

Ornithologist Guillermo Blanco, the lead author of the study, has spent over 30 years studying choughs, a bird in the crow family , and knew from first-hand experience how easy they are to catch.

The study, which took several years to complete, was headed by Blanco, a researcher at Madrid’s National Museum of Natural Sciences (MNCN), evolutionary ecologist Juan José Negro of Seville’s EBD-CSIC, Seville, and paleo-ornithologist Antonio Sánchez-Marco from the Miquel Crusafont Catalan Institute of Palaeontology.

Figure 1 from the study show the range of choughs and Neanderthals. (A) Red-billed choughs; (B) Map showing the current pooled distribution range of red-billed and Alpine choughs (in red), and the estimated range of Neanderthals (green barred area); (C) Sites with evidence of both Neanderthal occupation and the presence of chough skeletal elements. The presences of red-billed choughs, Alpine choughs or both species are represented by red, yellow, or red-yellow circular markers. Markers with blue borders represent sites with the presence of processed chough fossils remains, while circles with black borders represent sites where processing marks were not searched for or not recorded. (Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution)

Figure 1 from the study show the range of choughs and Neanderthals. (A) Red-billed choughs; (B) Map showing the current pooled distribution range of red-billed and Alpine choughs (in red), and the estimated range of Neanderthals (green barred area); (C) Sites with evidence of both Neanderthal occupation and the presence of chough skeletal elements. The presences of red-billed choughs, Alpine choughs or both species are represented by red, yellow, or red-yellow circular markers. Markers with blue borders represent sites with the presence of processed chough fossils remains, while circles with black borders represent sites where processing marks were not searched for or not recorded. ( Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution )

Sánchez- Marco was enlisted to map the overlap between chough crows and Neanderthal ranges as well as put together any evidence of Neanderthal chough consumption. He found evidence of ancient chough bones that had been cut, charred or bitten by hominids in at least nine sites across Europe.

Hunting choughs in daylight in open country is a difficult enterprise even with modern tools. However, night-time hunting with the use of fire in caves where they roosted seems to be the most plausible theory to account for the remains of choughs and Neanderthals found together at these sites.

“In our study, we captured choughs in caves at night and assumed that Neanderthals could have done the same,” Negro told Inverse. Nocturnal bird hunting suggests that Neanderthals may have possessed greater social collaboration , cognitive capacity and technological capabilities than previously believed.

The new study also adds valuable dietary information about Neanderthals. The Neanderthal diet, we know from research over the years, consisted of mushrooms, pine nuts, plants, shellfish, and even dolphin meat. There is also evidence to suggest that they caught pigeons and a few species of crows.

The recent study demonstrates the nocturnal hunting technique they could have used for hunting one species of bird in particular, the chough crow. Apart from being a source of calories for the Neanderthals, these choughs would also have provided them with micronutrients such as carotenoids. These would have helped in maintaining optimal Neanderthal vision and immune system health.

Figure 2 from the study: (A) Example of a communal roost of red-billed choughs in a well (Cuenca province, Spain); (B) Details of the position of choughs after being cornered by human (experimental) predators, and (C) their capture by hand, and (D) with the help of a ladder in communal roosts located in buildings in Aragón (Spain). (E) A red-billed chough marked with leg rings for individual identification. Photo credits: A (J. A. Cuevas), B (G. Blanco), C, D (J. M. García), E (Ó. Frías). (Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution)

Figure 2 from the study: (A) Example of a communal roost of red-billed choughs in a well (Cuenca province, Spain); (B) Details of the position of choughs after being cornered by human (experimental) predators, and (C) their capture by hand, and (D) with the help of a ladder in communal roosts located in buildings in Aragón (Spain). (E) A red-billed chough marked with leg rings for individual identification. Photo credits: A (J. A. Cuevas), B (G. Blanco), C, D (J. M. García), E (Ó. Frías). (Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution )

Believe It or Not: The Researchers Used Role Play!

However, the most interesting part of the study lies in the methodology used. Once the literature review had pinpointed the many possible chough caves along the Iberian Peninsula, Blanco and Negro adopted an actualization technique and pretended to be Neanderthals through role play! In 296 “role play” trials at 70 different roosting spots, they captured, tagged, and released 5525 chough crows.

The authors concluded that the night-time capture of choughs in roosting caves was extremely easy once the birds were dazzled or blinded by light: headlamps for the modern role play experiments, and fire and torches in the case of Neanderthals. The choughs dazzled by the light were so disoriented that they were easily caught by hand.

The Neanderthals were anatomically better equipped to catch food at night than modern-day Homo sapiens. Neanderthals could see better at night and their eyes were bigger than ours. These advantages would have helped them locate and track birds and hunt them in low light conditions. Moreover, with their shorter legs, Neanderthals may have been better climbers, which is handy in caves where the prey is roosting up high.

While the study hasn’t been able to conclusively prove that the Neanderthals employed the technique of blinding the choughs with fire light, it has demonstrated that it was possible and remarkably easy. The researchers plan to continue delving into the nocturnal Neanderthal hunting theory using other methodologies instead of only role play.

“Palaeontologists started to look at bird fossils under the microscope quite recently — in the 21st century — and readily found cut and tooth marks, demonstrating processing and consumption by humans,” said Negro. “The emerging field of ancient DNA will surely bring about exciting discoveries [and] new techniques underway may reveal unsuspected relationships,” he concluded.

Top Image: Neanderthal hunting birds in a cave at night. The latest study, using role play, has shown that Neanderthals were likely also nocturnal hunters, which is a completely new aspect for our ancient cousins. Source: Gorodenkoff / Adobe Stock

By Sahir Pandey

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