Although the first Thanksgiving was held in 1621, humans were roasting birds long before then.
Early modern humans and their predecessors in Europe were mostly big game hunters, but a pile of well-nibbled bird bones suggests that at least some prehistoric European cavemen enjoyed small prey too, according to a new study.
The 202 bones, belonging to the Aythya genus of diving ducks, were found at Bolomor Cave near the town of Tavernes in Valencia, Spain. The ducks date to around 150,000 years ago, and were not eaten daintily.
"The birds were de-fleshed using both stone tools and teeth," co-author Ruth Blasco told Discovery News, noting that some of the ducks may have even been consumed raw.
"The modifications observed on small remains from Bolomor Cave are the strongest evidence for bird consumption in the European Middle Pleistocene," she added.
Blasco, a researcher at the Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution in Tarragona, Spain, and colleague Josep Fernandez Peris analyzed the duck bones under high magnification. They determined three characteristics allow the bird remains to be considered duck dinner leftovers.
First, they found "cutmarks on bones of both the front and hind limb."
Second, they identified the "presence of burning patterns on the extremities of the bones, areas of the skeleton with less meat."
Finally, the researchers discovered "human tooth marks on limb bones."
Although both Neanderthal and modern human remains have been found at the Bolomor Cave complex, the geological level of the roasted duck finds suggests that Homo heidelbergensis is the human species that ate the duck meals.
The remains of at least seven hearths additionally prove that big-brained, tool-wielding H. heidelbergensis, also known as "Heidelberg Man," was a master at creating and controlling fire.
The findings, which are published in the October issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, indicate early Europeans enjoyed a much broader diet than first suspected.
Evidence supports that African hominids ate birds as early as the Plio-Pleistocene era, around 2 million years ago. Early European cavemen, on the other hand, are usually associated with spear thrusting and group hunting efforts. But they might have also been fleet footed with fast reflexes.
"The acquiring of fast-running and quick-flying small prey requires a sophisticated technology and involves obtaining and processing ways different from those used for large and medium-sized animals," according to the scientists, who think Heidelberg Man might have used traps, bird calls and other techniques to obtain ducks.
Gerrit Dusseldorp, a University of Leiden expert on Neanderthals and early humans, suggests dining on birds and other small prey might have been much more common in prehistoric Europe.
In his book "A View to a Kill: Investigating Middle Paleolithic Subsistence Using an Optimal Foraging Perspective," Dusseldorp argues that scientists often focus on "spectacular larger prey categories." He also believes proving small prey consumption is inherently more difficult due to the size of bones and the way the animals were probably eaten.
It's doubtful that elaborate carving methods were displayed around Bolomor Cave hearths.
As Dusseldorp points out, "small animals tend to be subjected to much less processing than larger animals. Usually, they are simply eaten whole."