Middle Pleistocene Bird Consumption at Level XI of Bolomor Cave (Valencia, Spain)

Thanksgiving is now well and truly over, as are the lives of numerous birds, in this case turkeys, that were consumed as part of the tradition, whilst even larger quantities of this particular bird are slated for slaughter and consumption as Christmas once more raises its ominous spectre on the festive horizon. I’m not sure for how long the consumption of birds has been a main feature of human feasting occasions, but as we see from the linked paper, humans have been eating various species of bird for hundreds of thousands of years, which is surprising in the context of how difficult it must have been for our ancestors to acquire this food item with what we might consider to be comparatively limited technological prowess. Two aspects of this study particularly interested me, the first that archaic humans were able to acquire avian prey, and second that on many occasions, it appears that the acquired meat may have been eaten in its raw state. Whether it was eaten by humans or given to other animals such as tamed hunting birds is something I’ll address in due course.

As we have seen in previous posts, there are numerous caves and rock-shelters across Spain which offer a wealth of finds and associated data, affording us invaluable insights into the life-styles of ancient humans, particularly when it comes to trying to ascertain which prey animals were hunted and consumed in the Middle Pleistocene.

As the authors Blasco and Fernández Peris note in their paper, much attention on this subject is paid to larger prey animals and the ways in which they were hunted, butchered and consumed, whilst the data from smaller prey comes under less scrutiny. In this paper they show how that around 150k years ago, archaic humans such as Homo heidelbergensis or possibly Homo neanderthalensis consumed, Aythya sp. a type of marsh-dwelling duck, although the birds themselves may on occasion have been eaten raw. How these birds were actually caught remains for now an open question, but we can be fairly sure that advanced hunting skills would have been necessary in order for this prey to have been a regular feature on the menu, assuming the birds weren’t opportunistically scavenged.

Here’s the abstract of the paper that’s behind a paywall, but because author Ruth Blasco has very kindly forwarded me a copy, I’m pleased to be able to offer more comment than might otherwise have been the case:


The consumption of small prey dates back to the Plio-Pleistocene chronologies in some African sites. However, the systematic acquisition and consumption of small prey in the pre-Upper Palaeolithic times is still a highly debated topic in Europe. Although the utilization of leporids has been recorded in several pre-Late Pleistocene European sites, the evidence of bird consumption is not as common for these periods. Nevertheless, Level XI (MIS 6) of Bolomor Cave has clear diagnostic elements to document the acquisition and use of birds (Aythya sp.) for food in the form of: (1) cutmarks on bones of both the front and hind limb; (2) presence of burning patterns on the extremities of the bones (areas of the skeleton with less meat); and (3) human toothmarks on limb bones.

The capture of birds is classified as quick-flying game in the archaeological sites. The acquiring of fast-running (mostly lagomorphs) and quick-flying small prey requires a sophisticated technology and involves obtaining and processing ways different from those used for large- and medium-sized animals. From this perspective, the aim of this paper is to examine possible patterns in the processing sequence of birds from Level XI of Bolomor Cave and to improve the data on their butchery and human consumption in the Middle Pleistocene of Iberian Peninsula.

The introduction goes on to discuss how avian prey may have been overlooked as a contributory factor to ancient humans as the amount of energy derived from their consumption is obviously much less than sources of meat on the hoof. Moreover, because the processing and consumption of smaller prey require little or no use of stone tools, as hands and teeth can be effectively deployed, less evidence of lithic activity appears on the bones of those birds that were eaten. However, as the authors note, other evidence in the guise of tooth-marks, breakages and alteration by fire of bird bones can serve equally well as clues that such remains found at ancient sites were there as a result of human activity rather than from the activities of other scavenging animals, birds of prey, or death by natural causes at the site in question.

Details of previous research at other sites is given here:

So far, the older evidences on avian remains were identified in the Early Pleistocene of Sima del Elefante (Spain) (Huguet, 2007) and of Dursunlu (Turkey) (Gu¨ leç et al., 2009). At the Sima del Elefante site, one cutmark on a proximal metaphysis of a large sized-bird radius was observed at Level TE9a. In Dursunlu, several incisions on distal metatarsus of a large bird were also documented. In more recent chronologies, an anthropogenic use on Pyrrhocorax graculus bones was suggested in the ‘‘acheulean cabin’’ of the Lazaret in France (Bouchud, 1969).

This study was based on the spatial distribution of the bird remains, which are more abundant inside the cabin. Nevertheless, this distribution has been the subject of debate. According to Villa (1983), this phenomenon is due to the natural formation process at Level V of the site. Some species, such as crows and pigeons, are known to nest on the wall of the caves and their bones are frequently found in karstic contexts. It is possible that some of these birds died from natural causes and others may have been brought by birds of prey (Bubo bubo) in form of pellet or by carnivores (Vulpes vulpes, Felis silvestris or Lynx spelaea) that occasionally inhabited the cavity (Lumley et al., 2004).

However, cutmarks on one Columba livia right humerus have been identified at UA 25 of Lazaret cave (Lumley et al., 2004; Roger, 2004). On the other hand, the bird accumulations in the Middle Pleistocene of the A´ ridos site (Spain) were interpreted by Mourer-Chauvire´ (1980) as the result of human hunting. However, the avian skeletal representation of this site is not biased (Mourer-Chauvire´ , 1980) and therefore, the interpretation of bird accumulation by hominids could be problematic. In these cases, the identification of other diagnostic elements of anthropogenic processing on skeletal remains should be considered….

…In Bolomor Cave, the consumption of small prey is common throughout the entire stratigraphic sequence. At this site, cutmarks on leporid bones (Oryctolagus cuniculus) are documented repeatedly from MIS 9 to MIS 5e (Blasco, 2006; Sanchis Serra and Ferna´ndez Peris, 2008). Anthropogenic processing marks are also observed on tortoise remains (Testudo hermanni) at Level IV (Blasco, 2008) and on one swan humerus (Cygnus olor) at Level XII (Blasco, 2006). This paper aims to add available data on the consumption and butchery of birds at Level XI in Bolomor Cave. Level XI is one of the levels, within the stratigraphic sequence of the site, which presents the highest percentage of very small sized animals in relation to ungulates and allows us to examine possible patterns of bird consumption.

As Cova de Bolomor might not be familiar to all, a brief word on its location and archaeological history is in order. The cave itself is faces north east, and is located on Monduver Mountain in the Valldigna Valley, near the town of Tavernes, Valencia in eastern Spain. Described as a karstic rock shelter, the site opened up around 500k years ago, and thus far, 17 archaeological levels have been identified, indicating numerous human occupations, where fossil remains, stone tools and hearths testify to activities that took place there.

As we see from an article in El Pais back in 2007, Neanderthal remains dating to 130k years ago have been found in the levels above XI, and comprise a milk tooth, an adult tooth and a partial skull, whilst other faunal remains indicate that animals such as macaque monkeys, rhinoceros and hippopotamus shared the immediate neighbourhood. The Neanderthal remains had been in the local museum since 1982, encased in a chunk of rock. As far as I can tell,  Bolomor was known to be of archaeological interest since the 19th century, but nevertheless the site suffered considerable damage in the 1930s, when explosions from nearby quarrying activities caused lumps of rock from the shelter to be scattered in the vicinity, which in turn were collected and taken to the museum for study and research.

However, despite clear signs of human activity at Level XI, some 20,000 years earlier than the Neanderthal presence, no human fossils have yet been discovered, leading the authors to suggest that the occupants at that time were H. heidelbergensis, or a transitory version thereof who were on the cusp of becoming classic H. neanderthalensis. Here’s a brief note on the stone tools that typify these layers:

The lithic industry recovered from Bolomor Cave is classified as a Middle Palaeolithic techno-complex. The used raw materials consist of flint, limestone and quartzite, which come from marine, colluvial and fluvial stones from the immediate area around the site and from areas further afield up to 15 Km from the site (Ferna´ndez Peris, 2007). The Level XI industry mainly consists of variously retouched pieces, small tools (scrapers and denticulates) and sporadic flakes of flint.

As for the faunal remains found at Level XI, we see that a rich variety of foods were eaten there:

Level XI provided 1047 faunal remains, of which 555 were identified taxonomically (Table 1). Among the determinate bones at a specific level, 469 (84.5%) belongs to small vertebrates (tortoises, birds, fishes and leporids). Although the consumption of small prey seems to be a constant throughout the sequence of Bolomor Cave, Level XI presents the highest proportion of small prey compared with the ungulates.

Level XI of Bolomor Cave provided 202 bird remains. These belong to the subfamily Anatinae, concretely to the genus Aythya. The taxonomic identification has been based mainly on the humeri, tarsometatarsi and coracoids according to the criteria described by Woelfle (1967). The MNE is 167, mostly represented by vertebrae (34) and phalanges (20), while skull and fibula are each represented by one bone. The MNI is 8 established from the most common element (coracoid) comparing paired elements and their size. All the identified individuals are adults.

The skeletal survival rate assesses the proportion between the elements recovered and those you would expect according to the MNI. This way, the obtained anatomical representation is deemed more valid as an indicator of the elements, which are absent from the sample, and suggests whether biases are present in skeletal part representation. This indicated a bias. The anatomical elements with the highest survival are coracoid and tibiotarsus. By contrast, the bones with least survival are ribs, vertebrae and fibulae followed by the craniumand the phalanges (Table 2).

According to the authors, none of the avian bones showed markings consistent with the activities of non-human carnivores, nor did they belong to species that would normally inhabit a cave environment, implying that they must have been transported there by humans. As noted in the paper, the leg and wing bones displayed clear signs of cut marks, as well as human tooth-marks, whilst the extremities of bones, where there is less meat, often had burn marks and associated discolouration, which is what might be expected had those parts been cooked in the embers of a fire.

To Catch a Bobbing Bird

Next we come to the question of how these ducks may have been acquired in the first place – although other small prey, including the tortoise have been documented at the site, the most difficult to catch would have been birds – they have a tendency to fly away at the merest hint of a nearby predator, and in the case of the ducks in this study, a marked preference for immersing themselves underwater. Because all the remains found belonged to adults, it seems very unlikely that prey were taken from their nests.  Mention is made of the way in which it is relatively easy to acquire birds that are in the migratory process, particularly those which are injured, dying or just plain exhausted from their in-flight exertions, but as the authors point out, there is no way of telling from the available archaeology at what time of year these migratory ducks were caught and eaten.

According to Richard Wrangham, cooking food could have played a major role in the story of human evolution, a practice dating back more than a million years, and yet indications from Bolomor are that 42% of the avian remains may have been eaten raw. Aside from remarking on the constitutional strength of the individuals who ate raw duck, assuming of course they didn’t suffer or even die from food poisoning, it is nevertheless quite strange that such comparatively recent archaic humans would willingly choose to eat raw meat from a bird.

Although it’s possible that the humans were so hungry they couldn’t wait around for the food to be cooked, or were in some cases unable to light a fire, or indeed that they were making gastronomic choices by not cooking their meat, the fact that they were able to procure this rather elusive prey in the first place, presumably by methods such as trapping with nets by casting them on water, or other devices, such as a putative ability to train birds of prey such as falcons or eagles to kill the birds on their behalf., would imply that having taken that much care to track and kill the prey, transport it back to the rock-shelter, rather than eat their catch on the spot, the decision to eat raw meat was one of taste.

The earliest recorded instance of hunting with birds in Spain comes from just over 2,000 years ago as we see from this snippet at the linked page: (scroll down to Spain and Portugal)

Recent existing discoveries of images from the 3rd century BC in Eastern Spain, that show falconry scenes are currently under scrutiny by academics. Until these were found scholars believed falconry entered Spain in the 5th century AD, coming from North Africa with the Moorish Kings and along the northern Mediterranean coast from Eastern Europe with the Goths at approximately the same time. Much of the history of pre-16th century Iberian Falconry is intertwined with Arab falconry of the time and written references abound in the Arabic language, for example in the 10th century.

The fact that some of the bird meat appears not have been cooked offers up the rather grisly image of our ancestors chomping away with great intent, eating a meal that would have likely have tasted as bad as it was dangerous. If however these archaic humans had by some chance been able to train birds of prey to kill other birds,and feed them morsels of the catch once all were in the safety of the rock shelter at locations such as Bolomor, there would have been no need to cook the food scraps given as traditional reward for domesticated hunting birds.

The origins of humans hunting with birds of prey are well documented throughout the historical period, and there seems no ostensible reason why such practices couldn’t have occurred in prehistory – though of course, there is no way of identifying exactly how far back this might be, or whether early humans possessed the cognitive capacity to embrace such ideas.

Cranial fossils from this period clearly show that these archaic humans had the necessary strength of bite to be able to cope with something as tough and fatty as duck or goose, or indeed other raw meats, though whether these robust features were retained specifically to cope with eating raw food, isn’t clear. Such an idea would be at odds with those who believe ancient cookery to have been almost compulsory to  hominid survival, although it could be argued that eating the occasional raw bird was easily compensated for by a diet in which cooked foods featured heavily.

Wild speculation aside, it is clear from this paper that when addressing topics such as the diet of H. heidelbergensis and their Neanderthal descendants,  that in addition to portrayals of them existing by routinely killing large prey animals, it’s necessary to appreciate that these people were equally adept at acquiring smaller prey, the most difficult of which to catch would have been elusive avian species. In the modern day, acquisition of such prey might require the use of other prey birds or implements capable of discharging projectiles at very high velocity, such as the shotgun, except in instances where the animals are farmed or otherwise domesticated.

(I haven’t as yet been able to extract images from the pdf to include here, but as soon as I find a way of doing so, I’ll endeavour to include them here.)

Update: My sincere thanks go once again to Ruth Blasco who was kind enough to furnish us with the images included above, most of which weren’t even from the original paper, and offer us a rare glimpse of the site and some of the work in progress – to view these images in greater resolution, please click here.

Reference: Middle Pleistocene Bird Consumption at Level XI of Bolomor Cave (Valencia, Spain), by Ruth Blasco and Josep Fernández Peris, Journal of Archaeological Science
Volume 36, Issue 10, October 2009, Pages 2213-2223


4 thoughts on “Middle Pleistocene Bird Consumption at Level XI of Bolomor Cave (Valencia, Spain)

  1. Don’t some of the ducks and geese molt completely just ahead of departure for autumn migration? In effect, they drop all their flight feathers at the same time, unable to take off or fly. It’s only a narrow window, but prehistoric hunters were surely attuned to this and would have a 1-2 week period where individual adult birds were easier prey.

  2. You don’t actually have to shoot birds with a projectile. Catching ducks in nets when they’ve moulted their flight feathers has a long history. The New Zealand Maori did it, Europeans did it and I even have an idea that the Australian Aborigines did it. Can’t find my source for that at short notice but it’s probably Josephine Flood’s 1988 book “Archeology of the Dreamtime”.

    I’ve just been reminded of the extinct passenger pigeon of North America. The question I asked myself was, ‘How come there were so many?’ The indigenous Americans cannot have hunted them. Which is strange. The Maori of NZ hunted pigeons. They snared them in water troughs placed in the pigeons’ favourite fruiting trees. But when the Maori first arrived pigeons were possibly as common in NZ as the passenger pigeon was in Northeast North America. Did the indigenous North Americans not think of snaring the passenger pigeon?

  3. fascinating just today i read on german wikipedia that neanderthaler were not able to hunt small prey, lol. mm, i have a few anthropological observations, firstly humans do eat raw meat,(especially liver and possibly heart, and brains) secondly in traditional groups women hunt for smallgame (wich could explain some of the different treatment of different sizes of prey). the question rises wether the smaller bones have been disregarded now, then, or perhaps filtered out by other animals then. it’s hard to judge, it is my impression in some caves a large portion of the waste got removed, perhaps in all, and i would be interested in the intensity of that proces. relating the hunting bird theory to untreated bones is rather moot, such bones would give clear indication of avian predation. alot of humans throw the bones of a meal into the fire, and so suggest at least some (perhaps all) archaic firepits, it would mean the sample has a bias for looking cooked, but also probably another cause of limited conservation of smaller (like avian or fish) bones.

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