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 say.
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. It's a small percentage of the bones they looked at, but they note that rock doves could easily be consumed by a hungry Neanderthal without tools -- kind of like how we eat chicken legs and wings today. 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," said Finlayson. "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 has already been established that they could control fire, probably wore furs, and were adept at making stone tools. Recent studies have also suggested that their diet included plants too, as well as large game and rabbits.
"It is becoming increasingly clear that that there is very little difference in the subsistence behavior of Neanderthals when we compare them to the modern humans that followed them," Finlasyon said. "The missing factor is how far their cognitive capabilities made them symbolic and abstract thinkers."
There has already been movement on that front too. A study published in December of 2013 found evidence that our closest human relatives buried their dead as long as 50,000 years ago. And in 2012, Finlayson published a study suggesting that Neanderthals may have preferred to adorn themselves with large black feathers from birds of prey.
Pigeon-loving Neanderthals with a soul? It could be!