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Dove fossils suggests man’s ancestors were smarter than previously thought

Long before there were urban plazas and parks filled with pigeons all across the world, pigeon ancestors and Neanderthals were hanging out together in rocky caves on the island of Gibraltar.

In a study published Thursday in Scientific Reports, researchers say they have found evidence of an association between Neanderthals and rock doves (the avian ancestor of feral pigeons) that goes back at least 60,000 years, before modern humans even arrived in Europe.

The rock doves may have stolen scraps of food from the Neanderthals, and in turn, these pigeon ancestors may have made up a large part of the Neanderthal diet, the researchers said.

In the past, scientists have argued that Neanderthals did not possess enough skills to catch birds, but the discovery of cut marks and teeth marks on the fossilized bones of ancient rock doves contradicts that view.

“Our study implies abilities previously only ascribed to modern humans,” said Clive Finlayson, a paleontologist at the Gibraltar Museum and one of the lead authors on the paper. “There is too much material for the birds to have been casually scavenged. There must have been active hunting involved.”

The archaeological team examined more than 1,700 rock dove bones in two caves on the southern tip of the Gibraltar peninsula from birds that lived between 60,000 and 28,000 years ago.

On 28 of the dove bones, the team found clear evidence of cut marks, suggesting a tool was used to get the meat off the rock dove’s bone. They also found burn marks on many of the bones, suggesting they had been cooked over a fire.

“I had suspected that Neanderthals, contrary to popular opinion, exploited birds, but we had to show that they were deliberately bringing the birds back to the cave,” Finlayson said. “The first ‘Aha!’ was finding cut marks in the pigeon bones, but finding more, and also burned marks and tooth marks, really sealed it.”

The study adds to a growing body of evidence that Neanderthals may have been more sophisticated than we gave them credit for in the past. It already has been established that they could control fire, probably wore furs and were adept at making stone tools. Recent studies also have suggested their diet included plants, too, as well as large game and rabbits.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that there is very little difference in the subsistence behavior of Neanderthals when we compare them to the modern humans that followed them,” Finlayson said. “The missing factor is how far their cognitive capabilities made them symbolic and abstract thinkers.”