Neanderthals may have caught and cooked wild pigeon long before modern humans began to regularly eat bird meat, a study has revealed.
The earliest evidence of hominids eating birds was discovered from close examination of 1,724 bones from rock doves or rock pigeons, which revealed human tooth marks and burns.
This suggested the birds may have been butchered and then roasted, according to the researchers. Similarly to modern Homo sapiens, Neanderthals would pull apart the bones to eat the pigeon flesh.
"They liked what we like and went for the breasts, the drumsticks and the wings," study author Clive Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar Museum, told the Daily Telegraph. "They had the knowledge and technology to do this."
"This makes them even more human," he added.
The study brings light to a theory that Neanderthals were smarter than previously thought, Finlayson told New Scientist, adding that they "couldn't have picked up the skills to catch the birds from modern humans".
According to the study, the sediment layers the Neanderthal relics and pigeon bones were buried in date up to 67,000 years ago, with most of the layers dating well before modern humans appeared in the region of 40,000 years ago.
The bird remains were from rock doves, a species that normally roost and breed on cliffs or rock ledges. They were found in Gorham's Cave in Gibraltar, which was occupied by Neanderthals and subsequently humans.
The discarded remains came from the Neanderthals' time in the cave. The evidence of roasted pigeon showed "repeated evidence of the practice [of cooking birds] in different widely-spaced" parts of the cave.
"Our results point to hitherto unappreciated capacities of the Neanderthals to exploit birds as food resources on a regular basis," the researchers wrote in the paper.
"More so, they were practising it long before the arrival of modern humans and had therefore invented it independently."
Finlayson told the Guardian that he believed Neanderthals used advanced techniques to capture the birds, rather than simply raiding their nests.
"I'm speculating, but I think they must have had snares or nets or some other trapping techniques that were made from perishable materials such as grasses and fibres," he said. "But it would be very difficult to find traces of those."
Neanderthals lived in parts of Europe, Central Asia and Middle East for up to 300,000 years but vanished from the fossil record between around 30,000 to 40,000 years ago.
The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.