Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar, was occupied by Neanderthals for thousands of years and was one of the last known sites of Neanderthal occupation before their final disappearance. Researchers have been working at the cave site for the past 25 years, and it has yielded a wealth of data about Neanderthal technology and patterns of subsistence.
In a survey published online in Nature Scientific Reports, researchers examined 1,724 Rock dove (common pigeon) bones from the cave, spanning the period from 67,000 to 28,000 years ago. All but the most recent part of this time period is associated with Mousterian technology, implying that the occupants of the cave at that time were Neanderthals. Modern human Upper Palaeolithic technology does not appear until near the end of the sequence.
Some of the bones were unevenly discoloured, consistent with roasting over a fire or glowing embers. Bones with less meat on them would have been more intensely affected by the heat, and would consequently undergo more discoloration than meatier bones. Some bones also displayed cut marks and/or tooth marks.
The exploitation of the pigeons was not sporadic: there is repeated evidence for the practice throughout the time that Neanderthals were resident in the cave. Furthermore, they could not have learned about it from modern humans as the earlier evidence substantially predates the arrival of modern humans in Europe.
That the Gorham’s Cave Neanderthals were able to regularly exploit this reliable and sustainable source of food is further evidence of their sophistication.
1. Blasco, R. et al., The earliest pigeon fanciers. Nature Scientific Reports online (2014).