Trail of feathers to the Neanderthal mind

The stereotype of Neanderthals as uncreative and unintelligent is remarkably persistent. In The Smart Neanderthal , archaeologist Clive Finlayson challenges that view. His assessment is informed by archaeological evidence, including his own decades-long research on groups of Homo neanderthalensis that lived on and around the Rock of Gibraltar from 125,000 to just over 30,000 years ago. Intriguingly, birds form a significant part of his argument.

When Neanderthals occupied the Gibraltar caves, sea levels were lower. The hominins shared their habitat with a much wider variety of animals, particularly birds, than is seen today. Fragile bird bones survive well in the relatively protected atmospheres of caves, and the fossils recovered sample 160 avian species. That covers 30% of the avian species known from Europe for the time, ranging from the pine grosbeak ( Pinicola enucleator , a finch), to ducks, choughs, larks, gannets, eagles and vultures. Finlayson suggests that tool marks left on the bones indicate that some of the species on Gibraltar were processed for food or, more controversially, for their feathers. He reminds us that birds come in many shapes and sizes, with a variety of behaviours and responses to humans, which implies that their exploitation would have required sophisticated knowledge. But he goes further, arguing that this knowledge was comparable to that drawn on by modern birders.