A Lot of Birds On The Menu 14.000 Years Ago in Belgian Chaleux Cave




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Aiguilles de Chaleux. The cave is located to the left of this rock formation. (Photo: Mark Ryckaert)
A Lot of Birds On The Menu 14.000 Years Ago in Belgian Chaleux Cave
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Reinout Verbeke

The hunter-gatherers who lived along the Lesse at the end of the last Ice Age exploited many different species of birds. Some bird remains suggest that humans attributed symbolic value to them. This is what emerges from the analysis of approximately 500 bird remains from the Trou de Chaleux Cave near Dinant (Belgium). The bones are about 14,000 years old and were collected in the 19th century.

In 1865, the geologist Edouard Dupont, later director of the Museum of Natural Sciences, collected many skeletal remains of mammals, birds and fish during his excavations in the Trou de Chaleux cave, as well as a large number of prehistoric artefacts (including the impressive Chaleux Stone). Most of the finds have already been thoroughly studied, except the bird remains. Researchers of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) have now examined them.

From Geese to Snowy Owls

The hunter-gatherers in our regions mainly exploited mammals 14,000 years ago, because they provided more meat and also raw material for making tools. However, half of the bones found in the Chaleux Cave come from birds. “Birds were therefore an important part of their menu,” explains researcher Quentin Goffette (RBINS). "The hunter-gatherers must have spent a lot of time hunting birds or setting traps and nets, even though their hunting techniques are largely unknown to us.”

Researchers can see if remains were left by humans and not by predators, when there are clear cutting marks. So, which birds did people at the Chaleux Cave exploit? At least ducks, swans, geese, ptarmigan, snowy owls and ravens.

A Special Status For The Raven?

An impressive number of goose wings have been found. The large flight feathers were probably extracted with stone tools and the long wing bones were used to make objects, who were sometimes decorated. However, the researchers could not confirm with certainty that the objects produced were actually used, for lack of use-wear traces. For other bones, the researchers are more certain: swan bones were used to produce needles.

Remarkably, raven toes were removed. According to the researchers, this indicates that the people living in the cave could have used them for symbolic purposes. The raven is an impressive bird in Northern Europe, with its black plumage and wide repertoire of songs and calls. It can even imitate sounds. The use of raven toes has also been highlighted in two Magdalenian sites in Germany - Gönnersdorf and Andernach-Martinsberg. At the Trou de Chaleux cave, the discovery of golden eagle and snowy owl claws that have been polished, suggesting that they were worn, reinforces the possible symbolic value of these large birds.

In addition, a piece of ivory from the same site has been carved in the shape of a bird, with incisions for wings and feathers. Artifacts carved in the shape of birds have also been found at the two German sites. "Another indication that birds were important to hunter-gatherers at the time in northwestern Europe," says Goffette.

The article is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

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