Neanderthals may have caught, butchered and cooked pigeons long before modern humans became regular consumers of bird meat, a new study has revealed.
Close examination of 1,724 bird bones in a cave in Gibraltar revealed cuts, human tooth marks and burns, according to research published in the journal Scientific Reports on Thursday.
The bones were from rock doves -- a species that typically nests on cliff ledges and the entrance to large caves -- and the ancestors of today's widespread feral pigeon.
The discarded remains were dated between 67,000 and 28,000 years ago, a period when the cave was occupied by Neanderthals and subsequently by humans.
It was not known how the birds were captured, though the team speculated they would have been relatively easy to snatch from their nests "by a moderately skillful and silent climber".
The markings on bones from parts of the cave inhabited by Neanderthals suggested the birds may have been butchered and cooked over fire, wrote the researchers.
"Our results point to hitherto unappreciated capacities of the Neanderthals to exploit birds as food resources on a regular basis," the team wrote.
"More so, they were practising it long before the arrival of modern humans and had therefore invented it independently."
It had been thought that humans were the first to regularly eat birds.
Yet at Gorham's Cave, "Neanderthals exploited Rock Doves for food for a period of over 40 thousand years, the earliest evidence dating to at least 67 thousand years ago," said the paper.
And these were not sporadic meals, as borne out by "repeated evidence of the practice in different, widely spaced" parts of the cave.
Other recent studies have revealed that in addition to meat, Neanderthals ate vegetables, berries and nuts, that they took care of their elders and used sophisticated bone tools.
An enigmatic branch of the human family tree, Neanderthals lived in parts of Europe, Central Asia and Middle East for up to 300,000 years but vanished from the fossil record about 30-40,000 years ago.
Only a small proportion of bones found in the cave's Neanderthal regions had cut marks on them, but the authors pointed out that the birds were small and easy to eat without utensils.
"After skinning or feather removal, direct use of hands and teeth would be the best way to remove the meat and fat/cartilage from the bones," they wrote.
"The proof of this is the human toothmarks and associated damage observed on some dove bones."
They conceded the scorch marks were not conclusive proof of cooking, but could also be waste disposal or accidental burning.