Ruth Blasco, a researcher at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH, has led a taphonomic study which presents evidence that birds were used not only as a source of food but also for their feathers, over 300,000 years ago in the Levant.
The results of this study, on which researchers from Tel-Aviv University in Israel, Universitat Rovira i Virgili, the IPHES in Tarragona and the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont in Barcelona also collaborated, suggest that the exploitation of birds was not limited just to food, whether as a complement to the diet or an occasional resource, but also hint at the possible use of feathers for non-alimentary purposes.
“We propose that a combined nutritional and symbolic use of birds is one characteristic of the new mode of adaptation represented by the Acheulo-Yabrudian cultural complex of the Middle Pleistocene in the Levant”, says Blasco.
Swans, pigeons, ravens and starlings
That humans had handled the birds found at the Israeli site of Qesem Cave was determined by the identification of cut marks, bending fractures and human gnaw marks on wing bones of swans (Cygnus sp.), pigeons (Columba sp.), brown-necked ravens (Corvus ruficollis) and starlings (Sturnus sp.).
Even though these are radically different species, the modifications observed on some of the bones could be related to aspects which go beyond the nutritional. In the case of the raven, the cut marks are situated on the distal part of the ulna and may have arisen from plucking. At the experimental level, it has been verified that this area of the bone is usually contacted by the tool during this activity, as there is hardly any muscle mass associated to it.
“Nevertheless, the fact that marks which could be the result of skinning and plucking have been detected does not imply that the animal was caught solely and exclusively for this purpose, but that this phase of the processing was carried out at the site”, states Blasco.
One special case
Without doubt, the most noteworthy case in this study is the carpometacarpus (distal wing bone) of the swan, because this element of the assemblage displays the greatest number of incisions and serrations, a circumstance which indicates insistence in processing this part of the wing.
This part of the anatomy has hardly any muscle mass and consists only of skin, feathers and tendons. The feathers of this area of the wing are especially long and narrow, and the oddity is that they are firmly attached to both the carpometacarpus and the phalanges, meaning that plucking them is very difficult.
“The fact that many marks and even an intentional bending fracture were detected indicates that non-alimentary resources were especially sought after in this case”, comments Blasco.
Birds in the scientific debate
The presence of small animals in the Paleolithic archaeological record has long been considered a key variable in evaluating fundamental aspects of human behavior.
How the inclusion of these animals in human subsistence arose has prompted an intense debate over the last fifty years linking ecological models to eco-social, environmental and cultural aspects.
Birds occupy a prominent place in this debate not only due to their small size and to the difficulties in capturing them (essentially due to their ability to fly and their elusiveness), but also because of their possible symbolic role in regard to non-nutritional resources (feathers, talons, etc.).