Birdie num num: Stone Age people loved it too

Fancy digging your teeth into a meal of pigeon breasts or dishing up guinea fowl legs? Middle Age Stone men and women did too.

Researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand’s Evolutionary Studies Institute carefully looked at bones collected in the Sibudu Cave near Tongaat in KwaZulu-Natal.

Sibudu Cave – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Sibudu Cave is a rock shelter, located roughly 40 km (25 mi) north of the city of Durban and about 15 km (9 mi) inland, near the town of Tongaat. It is in a steep, forested cliff facing WSW that overlooks the Tongati River in an area that is now a sugar cane plantation.

They among others found cut marks associated with the process of skinning or defleshing an animal. Based on the tooth marks found on other pieces of bones, the cave occupants have been digging their teeth into birdy meals with delight for the past 77 000 years.

According to an article in the Journal of Human Evolution, most of the bones inspected were those of pigeons, doves, waders, ground-feeding birds and raptors.

Direct evidence for human exploitation of birds in the Middle Stone Age of South Africa: The example of Sibudu Cave, KwaZulu-Natal

Here, we present direct taphonomic evidence for the exploitation of birds by hunter-gatherers in the Middle Stone Age of South Africa as far as ∼77 ka. The bird assemblage from Sibudu Cave, KwaZulu-Natal, was analysed for bone surface modifications.

“We conducted experiments to butcher, disarticulate, cook, and consume pigeon and dove carcasses, in order to create a comparative collection of bone surface modifications associated with human consumption of these birds,” explains lead author Aurore Val.

She says human/bird interactions can now be demonstrated outside of Europe, more than 50 000 years ago. “The evidence sheds new light on Middle Stone Age subsistence strategies in South Africa and introduces a fresh argument to the debate regarding the early emergence of behaviours usually associated with Later Stone Age hunter-gatherers,” adds Val.

Reference: Val, A. et al. (2016). Direct evidence for human exploitation of birds in the Middle Stone Age of South Africa: The example of Sibudu Cave, KwaZulu-Natal,  Journal of Human Evolution


Engela Duvenage

Co-founder of Day job: Science writer and science communicator who loves turning research papers into news stories. Claim to fame: mother of two daughters; winner of the Izethelo Award for Outstanding Journalism (2016) from the South African fruit industry, and winner of the best technical article award (2016) as presented by the South African Agricultural Writers' Association Background: MPhil (Journalism, specialising in science journalism) and HonsBA (Psychology).

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