STL Science Center

STL Science Center

24 August 2016

Neanderthal Chicken

Paintings showing variation in egg markings (Eggs no. 35, 51, 49 and 48), as well as seasonal and ontogenic differences in plumage, based on museum specimens (Birds no. 22, 15, 9 and 50).
Approximately 100,000 years ago Neanderthal walked all over Europe and ran across birds large and small. The Great Auk is included in the number of species that were on the plates (rocks?) of Neanderthal hunters. Auk bones in the remains of firepits and illustrations on cave walls in Spain from 35,000 years ago attest to the importance of Great Auks in the diets of Neanderthal. A suit of auk pelts has even been recovered from a 4,000 year old grave. The suit consisted of not only the pelts but the attached heads and beaks of 200 auks, making the bird remains readily identifiable. Populations in the millions made the birds prime food sources for Eskimos, Greenlanders, and even navigational aids; their numbers on the Grand Banks of the north Atlantic signaled to Europeans that they had arrived at the prime fishing grounds off the coast of Canada. During that time, and preceding it as far back as the 8th century, Great Auk down was used in the pillows of the wealthy and the Norse. Jacques Cartier, in his explorations of North America, used the Great Auk for food and bait; he and other sailors also introduced rats to many of the islands and lands that he visited thereby reducing the breeding population of the birds. The last breeding population, as was noted earlier, was utterly destroyed by skin and specimen hunters with the last egg violently and, some would say hatefully, smashed by the hunters that took the last two adults from the island. What's more, these last two breeding adults were strangled and the entire happening was recorded in text. From millions to zero in less than 1000 years, the Great Auk, Pinguinus impennis, is extinct almost entirely (Polar Bears had a hand in their demise also) because of its interactions with human beings.

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