Church of Birds

An Eco-History of Myth and Religion

European Robin singing. (Wikimedia Commons)

A flurry of archaeological discoveries and new analysis of old specimens means Israel now ranks first in the world with at least seven different species from the genus Homo, dating back 1.5 million years to Homo erectus. If the Cradle of Humankind is in South Africa, the cradle of the Homo genus is in Israel.

Located at the junction of three continents, Israel is a bottleneck for travelers moving back and forth between Africa, Europe and Asia. In addition to leading the world in its variety of Homo species, Israel also ranks first in bird migration, with 500 million flying back and forth each year between Africa and Eurasia.

Holding these two world records is no coincidence. Plotting the hominin fossil record on bird migration flyways shows that 10 bipedal ape-human hybrids and every species in the Homo genus are found exclusively in the busiest bird migration corridors and largest avian seasonal grounds in the world. It appears at least 16 human ancestors followed migratory birds around Africa and Eurasia, and were often rewarded at the end of their journey with bountiful ecosystems at avian seasonal grounds.

Early humans developed a spoken language by imitating birdsong, according to a 2013 linguistic study at MIT. When birds learn to sing, and humans learn to talk, an identical set of more than 50 genes are activated, according to a 2014 study at Duke. Humans and birds share a 75 percent ratio of the cortex to brain size and use similar brain circuits to control vocalization and social behavior.i In The Parrot in the Mirror (Oxford University Press, 2022), behavioral ecologist Antone Martinho-Truswell concluded that human behavior is far closer to birds than other mammals.

Scholars believe the similarities between bird and human brains are an example of convergent evolution when two different species independently evolve similar traits, but new evidence suggests there’s more to the story. It appears every ancestor in the human family tree followed the busiest migratory bird routes and lived on the largest avian seasonal grounds over millions of years. It’s plausible that human evolution was fueled by the imitation of birds.

World map
Vertical lines show the rare occurrences where three or more global bird migration flyways overlap. (Bird map courtesy of BirdLife International)

Epic journeys

The eight Global Bird Migration Flyways mapped by BirdLife International correlate closely with mountain ranges and volcanism, and ornithologists agree the routes have remained largely the same over time. Bird migration maps are a window into the distant past, and overlaying the human fossil record on bird migration flyways yields astonishing results.

Between the vast homeland of gorillas, chimps and bonobos in equatorial Africa and the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa is a corridor of three overlapping global bird flyways, a rare occurrence that produces extremely high bird populations and a wide variety of nearly 1,000 species.

Running south from equatorial Africa, a route of the East Atlantic Flyway dead-ends at a massive wintering ground in the Cradle of Humankind, where the bipedal Paranthropus robustus lived between 2.5 and 4.5 million years ago. Just to the southwest, Australopithecus africanus walked upright 2 – 3.6 million years ago at the Taung skull site, located on a route of the Asia-East Africa Flyway and the active boundary of the Mediterranean-Black Sea Flyway. These ape-human hybrids were far more mobile than modern humans, able to walk, run and swing through trees with their long, powerful arms.

East Atlantic Flyway
Blue dots show fossil sites of bipedal primates, with three sites in the Cradle of Humankind, South Africa, and another in Bavaria, Germany. (Bird map courtesy of BirdLife International)

In Bavaria, Germany, the fossil remains of the bipedal Danuvius guggenmosi were found in 2015 on a large avian seasonal ground fed by three bird routes, two of which link to equatorial Africa. A partial skeleton was estimated to be 11.6 million years old, making it the oldest bipedal primate on record, according to the November 2019 edition of Nature. (Between 8 and 15 million years ago, a convergence of continental plates in the Mediterranean made it possible to cross the Strait of Gibraltar.)

Between 6 and 7 million years ago, Sahelanthropus tchadensis swung through trees and walked on two feet northeast of Lake Chad on a seasonal ground for migratory birds linked to equatorial Africa by a route of the Mediterranean-Black Sea Flyway. In East Africa, the fossil remains of six more bipedal hybrids were found where the routes of two flyways overlap or on avian seasonal grounds.

It appears that over a span of more than 11 million years, at least 10 ape-human hybrids developed bipedalism in conjunction with following the busiest bird migration corridors and settling on avian seasonal grounds.

Med Black Sea Flyway
Blue dots show fossil sites of bipedal primates. (Bird map courtesy of BirdLife International)

East Asia Flyway
Blue dots show fossil sites of bipedal primates. (Bird map courtesy of BirdLife International)

Table I: Ten bipedal ape-human hybrids on bird migration corridors/seasonal grounds

Species Avian environment Location

Time period BP

Danuvius guggenmosi Seasonal ground; three routes from two flyways converge Bavaria, Germany 11.6m years
Sahelanthropus tchadensis On bird route near a seasonal ground Northeast Chad 6 – 7m years
Ardipithecus kadabba On bird route near a seasonal ground Middle Awash, Ethiopia 5.2 – 5.8m years
Orrorin tugenensis Routes of two flyways converge Tugen Hills, Kenya 5.7 – 6.1m years
Ardipithecus ramidus On bird route near a seasonal ground Middle Awash, Ethiopia 4.4m years
Australopithecus anamensis Routes of two flyways converge Kanapoi, Kenya 3.8 – 4.2m years
Australopithecus afarensis Seasonal ground; three routes from two flyways overlap Lake Turkana, Kenya 2.95 – 3.85m years
Australopithecus africanus Seasonal ground where three global flyways converge. Cradle of Humankind, S. Africa 2 – 3.6m years
Paranthropus robustus Seasonal ground where three global flyways converge. Cradle of Humankind, S. Africa 1.2 – 1.8m years
Paranthrapus boisei Seasonal ground where three routes and two flyways overlap Lake Turkana, Kenya 1.15 – 2.5m years

Ranging from 3-5 feet tall, the defenseless ape-human hybrids typically weighed under 100 pounds. While imitating the practice of bird migration, it’s plausible they also copied how birds walk and run – on two feet.

From a Darwinian perspective, following bird migrations offered at least three advantages: 1) Bird routes never stray far from fresh water and food resources, 2) Birds give recognizable alarm calls when predators are near, and 3) The scattering behavior of birds is a recognizable warning of catastrophic storms hours before they arrive. Plus, eggs are a good source of food.

The extraordinary level of collaboration necessary for a group of defenseless ape-human hybrids to survive extended treks through unknown territory likely required communication and social collaboration. Imitating bird calls to communicate with each other would have served as audio camouflage to avoid predators.

About 6 -7 million years ago, the genetic divergence of humans from chimps included changes to the language gene (FOXP2)ii that led to more synaptic growth and neural plasticity, building a greater capacity for learning.iii

Plotting the Homo genus on bird flyways

With a brain twice the size of its ancestors, Homo erectus emerged about 2 million years ago and apparently followed birds across Eurasia until going extinct about 25,000 years ago in Indonesia. It was a foot taller than previous primates with much less body hair, allowing for daytime travel over open terrain. Arched feet and a new balancing organ in the inner ear allowed it to walk or run with its eyes trained on a distant target. After developing a modern human noseiv (a bony protrusion) about 1.6 million years ago, they looked very much like us.

The name Homo erectus has come to serve as an umbrella that covers a range of hominins with somewhat differing features found from the Cradle of Humankind to East Africa, Israel, Europe and Asia. The oldest fossils outside Africa are estimated to be 1.75 million years old, discovered in Dmanisi, Georgia, where three global flyways converge to form a super-highway of birds running north-south through the Caucasus Mountains.

Another step up in brain size came with Homo heidelbergensis, which had a more rounded skull like modern humans, used hearths to burn wood and used fire to alter tools as early as 790,000 years ago in northern Israel. Going extinct about 200,000 years ago, Homo heidelbergensis is believed to be the ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans. The tiny Homo naledi (average height: 4’9”) was found at the avian seasonal ground in the Cradle of Humankind, where they apparently buried their dead in the Rising Star Cave system between 236,000 and 335,000 years ago.

Fossil evidence of Homo neanderthalensis is clustered around busy bird migration corridors and seasonal grounds in Israel, Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and Uzbekistan. In northern Iraq, the Neanderthal burials in Shanidar Cave are located on a seasonal ground of the Central Asia Flyway that’s also fed by a route on the Asia-East Africa Flyway.

In 2010, fossil remains of a possible new Homo subspecies known as Denisovans were discovered at a rare convergence of bird migration routes from three different flyways at Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of Russia. Genetic studies show Denisovans split off from Neanderthals between 470,000 and 160,000 years ago, but may have been larger than their ancestors. A large molar from the cave was estimated to be about 150,000 years old. Geneticists suspect this mountain-dwelling cousin may have interbred with an Asian variant of Homo erectus in the distant past.

If all human ancestors followed the busiest bird migration corridors, the chances for the meager populations to meet were much higher, and their shared interest in birds could have laid the groundwork for healthy social bonds. Geneticists believe the widespread interbreeding among all subspecies of the genus Homo over tens of thousands of years in the Near East, Europe and Asia was responsible for the hardiness and ultimate success of Homo sapiens.

East Atlantic Flyway
Plotted on the East Atlantic Flyway are Homo erectus (red), Homo heidelbergensis (blue), Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (yellow), Denisovans (purple) and early Homo sapiens sapiens (green).
(Bird maps courtesy of BirdLife International)

Med Black Sea Flyway
Plotted on the Mediterranean-Black Sea Flyway are Homo erectus (red), Homo heidelbergensis (blue), Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (yellow), Denisovans (purple) and early Homo sapiens sapiens (green). (Bird map courtesy of BirdLife International)

East Asia Flyway
Plotted on the East Asia – East Africa Flyway are Homo erectus (red), Homo heidelbergensis (blue), Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (yellow), Denisovans (purple) and early Homo sapiens sapiens (green). (Bird map courtesy of BirdLife International)

Central Asia Flyway
Plotted on the Central Asia Flyway are Homo erectus (red), Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (yellow), Denisovans (purple) and early Homo sapiens sapiens (green).
(Bird map courtesy of BirdLife International)

Australasia Flyway
Plotted on the East Asia-Australasia Flyway are Homo erectus (red), Denisovans (purple) and early Homo sapiens sapiens (green). (Bird map courtesy of BirdLife International)

A crossroads at Denisova Cave

At the crossroads of bird routes from three flyways, Denisova Cave was a popular destination. Genetic studies confirmed that Neanderthals somehow reached the Altai Mountains and interbred with Denisovans at the cave about 95,000 years ago, producing blended families.

Just 60 miles west of Denisova Cave, a group of about 20 Neanderthals lived in a riverside hunting camp by Chagyrskaya Cave about 54,000 years ago, according to the October 2022 edition of Nature.

Modern humans used Denisova Cave sometime between 19,000 and 25,000 years ago with DNA traced to the Mal’ta–Buret’ culture, centered almost 1,000 miles to the east at Lake Baikal, according to the May 2023 issue of Nature. The DNA was extracted from an amber pendant, indicating a trade network.

Heading south from the Altai Mountains, two bird routes reach the Tibetan Plateau, where a monk discovered a large jawbone with intact molars in 1980 at Baishiya Karst Cave in Gansu, China. In 2019, a forensic study published in Nature found the jawbone belonged to a Denisovan living 160,000 years ago. Now a Tibetan Buddhist Sanctuary, Baishiya Karst Cave also yielded evidence of Denisovans building fires between 100,000 and 45,000 years ago, according to a Lanzhou University study in the October 2020 issue of Science. Denisovans lived comfortably in high mountain ranges due to a gene that regulates blood hemoglobin, a gene that was passed on to Tibetans through interbreeding in the distant past, according to a 2014 study by the University of California.

In the May 2022 edition of Nature, another Denisovan molar estimated at about 150,000 years old was reported found in Cobra Cave in northern Laos on a massive seasonal ground for migratory birds fed from all cardinal directions by three routes on the Asia-Australasia Flyway. Although Denisovan DNA has been mapped and confirmed in modern populations across Asia and Australasia, the limited fossil record means these large, mountain-dwelling human cousins still await a Latin name.

Seed-bearing birds diversified the landscape

Fortunately for the entire genus of Homo, a truly ancient process of natural selection established a strong correlation between bird flyways and volcanic regions where the groundwater and fertile soil is perpetually recharged with minerals and nutrients, along with annual loads of nitrate-rich bird droppings. Sub-grade layers of ash store water and protect against drought. Today, many of the largest avian seasonal grounds in the world are hot spots for biodiversity.

In January 2016, a remarkable discovery published by The Royal Society of Biology in London helped explain the correlation between migratory birds and perpetually flourishing ecosystems. It seems birds carry enough seeds over hundreds of miles to be classified as “vectors of (seed) dispersal” that substantially diversify the flora on their seasonal grounds. Even rest areas along bird routes would have benefited from greater floral diversity. The conclusions confirmed Charles Darwin’s suspicion that migrating birds spread seeds around the world.

The study also confirmed the truth behind a cross-cultural myth that describes birds bringing the seeds of vegetation to the soil. The Kaonde of Zambia say honey birds brought seeds to the first humans. In Chinese legend, Shennong the Fire Emperor came upon a phoenix dropping “glistening golden grain” from its beak and creating a field of tender green shoots. The Hidatsa of North Dakota believed geese delivered corn, ducks brought beans and swans carried squash seeds. In the Caribbean, the Arawak credit hummingbirds with bringing tobacco seeds from the sky. Similar myths are common across ancient and indigenous cultures. In modern terms, it appears birds were widely perceived as seed-bearing indicators of floral diversity. The fossil and archaeological record shows all human ancestors were typically found where at least two global bird flyways converged.

Israel: Cradle of the Homo genus

The bird migration flyways that circle the globe are like a highway system in the sky, with rest areas and smaller routes converging into busier migration corridors, which often lead to large seasonal grounds.

Birds from across Europe and Asia fly to Africa for the winter and return north for the summer, creating a bottleneck where the three continents meet. With 500 million migratory birds passing through twice a year, Israel is the Grand Central Station of birds: The incredible population numbers and variety of species attract birders from around the world, boosting the tourist economy. Meanwhile, a recent flurry of archaeological studies and re-examination of old evidence has identified at least seven species from the genus Homo in Israel, more than any other country in the world.

Plotted on a map of Israel are fossil sites of Homo erectus (red), Homo heidelbergensis (orange), Homo neanderthalensis (yellow), unclassified Homo (black), early and modern Homo sapiens (green). (Map courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

An international team of scientists announced in the February 2022 issue of Scientific Reports that a vertebra discovered south of the Sea of Galilee in 1966 belonged to a “Homo erectus type”v that lived 1.5 million years ago. Discovered at the Ubeidiya archaeological site on the Jordan River, the vertebra was from a child between 6 and 12 years old who would have grown to be about six feet tall. Scholars had already suspected Homo erectus lived in the area due to evidence of butchered hippos and wild cows.

More recently, a March 2024 study by Tel Aviv University concluded that Homo erectus quarried stone in the Upper Galilee region to make tools for hunting elephants, also about 1.5 million years ago.

About 20 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, Homo heidelbergensis made wood fires in hearths and used heat to alter tools about 790,000 years ago at Gesher Benot Ya-aqov, an archaeological site on the Jordan River just south of Lake Hula. A 2016 study found they hunted everything from elephants to hippos, deer and gerbils, but also ate nuts, seeds, and

Between 2011 and 2016, a total of 18 teeth from an as-yet unclassified species of Homo found in Qesem Cave just east of Tel Aviv suggest the cave was occupied at least three different times between 200,000 and 420,000 years ago. “Human remains indicate a post-erectus hominin showing similarity to later, local modern humans as well as to Neanderthals,” according to a study published in May 2017 by Cambridge University Press. Evidence at the site suggests the unclassified Homo species made stone blades and scrapers, were organized hunters, and cooked over a central hearth.

Another unclassified Homo sub-species discovered just north of Jerusalem at Nesher Ramla was reported in the June 2021 issue of Science Daily, with evidence suggesting a settlement between 120,000 and 140,000 years old. Fossil remains showed a mix of features from Homo heidelbergensis and Neanderthals. Although DNA hasn’t been extracted, scholars believe interbreeding in the area likely included all sub-species of the genus Homo.

About 95,000 years ago, Neanderthals buried the antlers of a red deer on the chest of a 13-year-old child at Qafzeh Cave, halfway between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean coast. A similar ritual was carried out about 60,000 years ago when Neanderthals buried an infant with the jawbone of a red deer resting on its pelvis at Amud Cave by the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Charred animal bones cooked between 48,000 and 60,000 years ago in Kebara Cave near the coast south of Haifa were the first reliable evidence of Neanderthal cooking.

Predating all the Neanderthal remains was fossil evidence of “early modern Homo sapiens” found just north of Kebara in Misliya Cave and estimated to be up to 194,000 years old, according to a 2018 study in Science.

Table II: Fossil sites of Homo species in Israel

Species Fossil site Age of fossil(s) BP
Homo erectus Ubeidiya, south of Sea of Galilee 1.5 million yrs
Homo heidelbergensis Gesher Benot Ya-aqov, Lake Hula; Zuttiyeh Cave, north shore of Sea of Galilee 790,000 yrs; 200,000 – 500,000 yrs
Unclassified Homo Qesem Cave, just east of Tel Aviv 200,000 – 420,000 yrs
Homo sapiens neanderthalensis Qafzeh Cave, ½-way between Sea of Galilee and Mediterranean coast; Kebara Cave, south of Haifa; Amud Cave, north shore of Sea of Galilee 95,000 yrs; 48,000 – 60,000 yrs; 50,000 – 70,000 yrs
Early modern Homo sapiens Misliya Cave, south of Haifa 177,000 – 194,000 yrs
‘Nesher Ramla Homo’ Nesher Ramla, north of Jerusalem 120,000 -140,000 yrs
Modern Homo sapiens Ohalo II site, south of Sea of Galilee 23,000 yrs

During the last Ice Age about 23,000 years ago, a group of modern Homo sapiens survived the bitter cold by intensively gathering wild plants and baking bread at the Ohalo II site on the south shore of the Sea of Galilee. With recent findings piling up to at least seven different species from the genus Homo, the fossil record now suggests Israel was the crossroads and the cradle of the genus.

The oldest Homo sapiens fossil ever found was estimated at 315,000 years old, discovered in Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, where two routes of the East Atlantic Flyway converge/diverge, a relatively rare phenomenon.

Nisroch and the sacred tree, (Public Domain)

Birds, seeds & farming

There’s both scientific and mythic evidence that early farming was based on the ecological awareness that migratory birds delivered seeds to the soil in spring, and represented an attempt to imitate the phenomenon by planting seeds themselves.

Farming first developed in the Near East against the backdrop of the Ice Age melting away, causing sea levels to rise while thawing out fertile highlands. At the volcano Karaca Dağ in eastern Turkey, the wild genetic ancestors of 68 contemporary types of cereal still grow, making it the original source of domesticated plants in the Near East, according to a 2006 study by the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research.

Less than 300 miles south is the oldest farming village in the Fertile Crescent, Abu Hureyra, dating back 12,000 years. Between Karaca Dağ and Abu Hureyra is Göbekli Tepe, the oldest megalithic temple on record, built between 10,200 and 11,600 years ago. All three sites are linked by a route of the Mediterranean-Black Sea Flyway. The image of bird-gods seeding the Tree of Life was a common motif of Mesopotamian art.

Med Black Sea Flyway
On the Mediterranean-Black Sea Flyway, the upper blue dot encompasses the volcano Karaca Dağ and Göbekli Tepe; blue dot below marks the farming settlement Abu Hureyra. (Bird map courtesy of BirdLife International)

One of many egg-shaped enclosures at Göbekli Tepe. (Wikimedia Commons)

The twin creator gods atop the Sumerian pantheon at the time were Enlil and Enki, often shown with wings, who ruled a host of lesser gods. Enki created humans to take over the job of tending the earth’s gardens from the lesser gods, who had complained about the workload. But Enlil grew angry with the noisy humans and sent a genocidal flood. Fortunately, Enki had warned a virtuous family to build an ark and gather animals, and when the survivors landed on a volcanic slope known as an Edin, Enki taught them how to farm.

It’s plausible the Sumerians viewed Karaca Dağ as a sacred nursery where the first farmers gathered wild cereals to domesticate plants at settlements such as Abu Hureyra, Nevalı Çori, and Çayönü, all on the same bird migration route. Following the practice of migratory birds, it was time for humans to start spreading the seeds of vegetation, and not just in the Fertile Crescent. A similar story was unfolding halfway around the world.

Genetic and archaeobotanical studies now suggest early South American farmers used the volcanic highlands of the Andes Mountains as a “cradle” between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago to collect wild plants for domestication, including manioc, peanuts, coca and tobacco.vii The cradle of farming was located at the headwaters of the Madeira River, where two bird migration routes from the Pacific Americas and Central Americas flyways converge, running northwest-southeast across the highlands. Evidence at numerous archaeological sites along the Madeira River and its tributaries show a pre-ceramic culture emerging at least 10,600 years ago and possibly more than 12,000 years ago.

Several hundred miles to the northwest, at 10,335 feet in the Central Andes, the Tello Obelisk once stood in front of the Old Temple at Chavín de Huántar, built about 2,850 years ago. The obelisk, carved in granite, depicted a raptor dropping peanuts.viii

Pacific Americas Flyway, blue dot shows the Upper Madeira River Basin, yellow dot shows The Old Temple at Chavín de Huántar. (Bird map courtesy of BirdLife International)

Central Americas Flyway On the Pacific Americas Flyway (at left) and the Central Americas Flyway, blue dot shows the Upper Madeira River Basin, yellow dot shows The Old Temple at Chavín de Huántar. (Bird map courtesy of BirdLife International)

The seed-bearing Greek goddess of spring

In ancient Greek myth, a goddess named Persephone is taken to the Underworld for six months each winter, where she eats pomegranates, a fruit visibly full of seeds. Her mother, Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, worries about her daughter over the winter, but Persephone returns each year amid the blooms of spring.
The seasonal timing of the plot and the pomegranate seeds suggest Persephone was intended to embody migratory birds, but there’s harder evidence at hand. Five temples dedicated to Demeter and Persephone between 2,350 and 2,700 years ago were built where migratory birds take off or make landfall on the Mediterranean-Black Sea Flyway.

One temple is on the Greek island of Naxos near a migration route leading south to the ancient city of Cyrene in Libya, where another temple was built. Still, another temple is found in Syracuse, Sicily, a stopover for birds migrating from Italy to North Africa. The same route makes landfall near the ancient city of Carthage, where a fourth temple to Demeter and Persephone was constructed. Still, another temple to the goddesses was found in 2016 in Sozopol, Bulgaria, a port city on the Black Sea where a bird route dead-ends at a seasonal ground.

Med Black Sea Flyway
Blue dots show sites of temples to Demeter and Persephone on the Mediterranean-Black Sea Flyway, clockwise from left is the ancient city of Carthage in Tunisia; Syracuse, Sicily; Sozopol, Bulgaria; Naxos, Greece; and the ancient city of Cyrene in Libya. (Bird map courtesy of BirdLife International)

The divinity of birds

That birds could fly may have been enough for our distant ancestors to perceive them as godlike.

But perhaps the most miraculous quality of birds was their apparent ability to predict the future. Flocks of birds that scatter long before the arrival of a hurricane leave the impression they somehow knew a storm was coming. Across ancient cultures, diviners observed the flight of birds to predict the future. Today, scientists believe birds sense distant storms because they can perceive changes in barometric pressure and hear the low frequencies of distant thunder.

The use of feathers, talons and eggs as artifacts in rituals suggests birds were perceived as divine beings dating back at least 176,000 years to Homo neanderthalensis. Numerous recent studies across Europe concluded they intentionally removed feathers and talons from eagles and vultures and used them as symbolic artifacts in ritual practices. Forensic analysis of eight eagle talons found at a Neanderthal site at Krapina cave in Croatia revealed cut marks suggesting they were part of a necklace estimated to be 130,000 years old. The ritual use of feathers, talons and necklaces has continued among indigenous cultures to the present day.

Deep inside Bruniquel Cave in southern France is an oval ring 14 feet across and 20 feet long created 176,000 years ago by Neanderthals to hold symbolic rituals, including small fires, according to a study authored by 18 scientists in the May 2016 issue of Nature. The stones of the ring were made by heating and breaking stalagmites and stalactites. The approximate 2:3 ratio of the oval ring is common in bird’s eggs, including hens, ducks, turkeys and pheasants.

A five-hole flute made 42,000 years ago from the wing bone of a griffon vulture was found in Hohle Fels Cave in Bavaria, on the same avian seasonal ground where fossil remains of the bipedal Danuvius guggenmosi were discovered. Archaeologists believe the flute was made by modern humans who recently arrived from Africa. Long associated with birdsong across cultures, the flute may have been played in the echoing cave in the context of a forgotten ritual.

Birds are often identified as a divine ancestor: From Siberia to northern Japan, indigenous cultures identified whooper swans as the ancestral mother. The Iban of Borneo say two birds shaped earth into people and brought them to life with bird calls. The creation myth of the Osage of Kansas describes ancestral souls existing only in spirit until a redbird volunteered to make human children by changing its wings into arms and beaks into noses. The redbird concluded by giving humans the gift of language.

These and dozens more bird myths across cultures now appear to paint an accurate picture of human evolution fueled by imitating birds, as a child copies a parent.

But perhaps the greatest bird-god of all was found in the night sky in the high-flying Cygnus constellation.

The story of Cygnus

Most ancient and indigenous cultures perceived the heavens as the source of light, warmth and life-giving rain. Life on Earth was believed to originate in the sky.

Most cosmologies identified a mirror world in the heavens that was revealed at night in the orbit of constellations. Storytellers across cultures saw cosmic animals in the slow-moving panorama and told folktales linked to the changing seasons. Not only did our ancestors see the shape of a bird in the Cygnus constellation, they told stories of its movement that reflected the seemingly miraculous roles that birds played on Earth. As above, so below.

The Cygnus constellation, by Till Credner, (CCBYSA3.0)

Because the Earth wobbles on its axis, the annual orbits of the constellations appear to change over a 26,000-year cycle known as precession. Scholars believe the process was too slow for ancient cultures to notice, but considering humanity’s ancient bond with birds, the constellation Cygnus was likely to be a key player. The northern celestial pole, around which all the stars seem to turn, would also have played a vital role.

If Cygnus and the pole were closely observed due to their supreme importance, it’s plausible the slow but dramatic change in the star-bird’s annual orbit around the pole was noticed and passed on, even over thousands of years. The changing flight path of Cygnus may have inspired new stories and beliefs.

For example, when Cygnus orbited closely around the celestial pole 17,000 years ago, long-distance trekkers would have used it to take their bearings because the pole doesn’t move. Taking bearings from Cygnus while following the guidance of migratory birds on earth may have been a manifestation of the concept, as above, so below.

The annual orbit of Cygnus slowly extended away from the pole and was growing closer to Earth about 14,500 years ago, when the Bølling warming caused sea levels to rise an average of 45 feet around the planet, reshaping coastlines.

The global climate change was similar to the coming of spring when groundwater rises, creeks flood, and migratory birds arrive. Across ancient cultures, the arrival of migratory birds in spring was associated with storms and floods, resulting in the archetypes of the North American Thunderbird and the flying dragons of ancient China. Both creatures made wind and thunder with their wings and shot lightning from their eyes or claws.

Just as the Ice Age was melting away and waters were rising, Cygnus the star-bird was moving closer to the horizon, coming nearest every spring. It was a time when people had left the flooding coastlines for higher ground and rediscovered the thawing volcanic highlands of the Fertile Crescent with its rich soil, rushing creeks and precious stones.

One spring night 11,500 years ago, Cygnus finally lost its circumpolar status when Deneb, the tail star, appeared to land on the horizon for the first time, just like a bird. In the eyes of our distant ancestors, Cygnus had become migratory, flying each year between the celestial pole and Earth. The star-bird was likely perceived as delivering cosmic seeds – a divine gift for humanity that ushered in the age of agriculture.

This major astronomical event occurred around the same time as the construction of Göbekli Tepe, which features massive egg-shaped enclosures, like a giant nest on a hillside. Were the builders waiting for the star-bird Cygnus to land and symbolically hatch the eggs? The star-bird landed on the horizon at about the same time that early Peruvian farmers gathered wild seeds for domestication in the Andes highlands: Cygnus can be seen in the night sky as far south as the 29th parallel, including from the Madeira River Basin in southern Peru. Whatever  Cygnus meant to early farmers, they almost certainly believed that re-enacting the delivery of seeds to the soil by migratory birds was a sacred calling.

In summary, it appears our distant ancestors had the requisite ecological awareness to recognize that birds were seed-bearing indicators of bio-diversity. It didn’t require modern science to observe that birds appeared in the greatest numbers in regions where there was the widest variety of thriving plant life. The fossil record suggests a continuous series of human migrations from Africa throughout Eurasia, following musical and colorful migratory birds from one Garden of Eden to the next.

Ben H. Gagnon is an award-winning journalist and author of Church of Birds: an eco-history of myth and religion (Collective Ink, 2023). For more information, go to
See an interview with Ben about his book, Church of Birds, here:
i The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman (Penguin Books, 2017)
ii “Differences between human and chimpanzee genomes and their implications in gene expression, protein functions and biochemical properties of the two species,” in BMC Genomics, September 10, 2020.
iii “The evolution of human altriciality and brain development in comparative context,” in Nature Ecology & Evolution, December 4, 2023.
iv “The navigational nose: a new hypothesis for the function of the human external pyramid” by Lucia F. Jacobs, Journal of Experimental Biology, February 2019.
v “Archaeologists discover missing link in human evolution in Israel,” Haaretz, February 2, 2022.
vi “Archaeologists Find 780,000-year-old Remains of Prehistoric Man’s Meal,” Haaretz, Dec. 5, 2016.
vii “Crop domestication in the upper Madeira River Basin,” published by the Emílio Goeldi Museum of Human Sciences, Belém, Brazil, April 2016.
viii Burger, Richard L. (Ed.) The Life and Writings of Julio C. Tello: America’s First Indigenous Archaeologist (University of Iowa Press, 2009)

Church of Birds

An Eco-History of Myth and Religion

Ben H. Gagnon is an award-winning journalist and author of Church of Birds: an eco-history of Myth and Religion (Collective Ink, 2023) and a novel of historical fiction, People of the Flow: A Journey into Ireland’s Ancient Past (Beacon Publishing Group, 2019).

See an interview with Ben about his book, Church of Birds, here:

4 thoughts on “Updated fossil record: Israel was the cradle of the Homo genus. It’s also the Grand Central Station of global bird migration. And that’s no coincidence.”

  1. Madeleine Daines says:

    Line 113. The eye (Sirius) on the side of the circling ferry boat will count the stars and watch for arrows, that the spirits circling below with the swan (Cygnus) rise with the Phoenix – again. (The Path to Sky-End aka Enki’s Journey to Nibru)

    The importance of birds in the Sumerian texts is evident. However, existing translations mentioning Enki and Enlil are inaccurate on more than one score. Both names are sourced from EN, the ‘Lord’, with no mention made of the all-important themes of astronomy or spiritual initiation (and en-theogens). The notion of modelling humans out of clay stems from a play on words – the clay being that of the inscribed tablet. It comprises an underlying reference to the importance of ‘immaculate’ truth. I daresay the irony of that, given some of the extravagant interpretations of the doings of the Anunnaki gods, will not be lost on you.

    The images out of that region of the world are of considerably more interest than the written text of the ‘Enki’ creation story as it stands. And of course ancient Hebrew ‘Nisruk’, ‘nisroch’ or ‘neser’, said to derive from an Assyrian word, hasn’t been clearly linked to the Mesopotamian bird-man figure presented here. The biblical texts are another great source of relatively meaningless names.

    That said, one of the two Sumerian words that give the origin of both ‘phoenix’ (bird of fire) and ‘revelation’ has the meaning ‘fire’ and might be pronounced either NE/NI or BEL/BIL – eventually but tenuously linking to the ‘nesher’ eagle of the ancient Hebrew language.

    The above line, written or copied ca.1600 BC and present on a forgotten clay prism in the Ashmolean museum, gives the origin of the myth of Phaeton and Cygnus. Greek mythology, largely – if not entirely – sourced from the earliest Mesopotamian astronomer-scribes, is of considerably more interest than those corrupted stories about Enki fed to the world over the past century or so. The identification of Sirius made by me in that context was only partially based on the star’s various ancient and corresponding names (Hindu, Zoroastrian, Persian). It might also link to Egyptian Horus thought to be behind the protective eye still painted onto boats.

    An interesting read providing food for thought in terms of the importance of migratory and seed-bearing birds as themes. I will bear them in mind as I dig deeper. Thank you.

  2. Andy says:

    Wow. An unexpectedly amazing article! Thank you for this original and insightful research, Ben! Very interesting. Cheers!

  3. martin says:

    “Because the Earth wobbles on its axis, the annual orbits of the constellations appear to change over a 26,000-year cycle known as precession.”

    Note that the precession cycle might not be due to the wobbling of the Earth, or not only, but instead, or in combination, due to the solar system spiraling around an electrical current (Bikerland) as proposed by some. Check for example the very interesting series on the subject in Gareth Samuel youtube channel “See the pattern”.

    Regarding the astrological and other signs, the associations to constellations was, in my opinion obviously, a posterior association to pre-existing mythical symbols/figures as it seems that only a very fertile imagination could discern a similitude between some of the signs and their respective constellations.

    So the question that arises is then why did they associate those figures to constellations and what were their real origin?

    As I suggested in your previous article the origin/source of inspiration for all those figures/symbols seem to be very likely of electrical plasma origin when Earth and likely all of the solar system, as all seem to indicate, were under a tremendous electrical stress, as Peratt suggested in his revolutionary 2003 paper when he compared shapes/figures found in his experiments, under nuclear weapons effects studies, to countless petroglyphs/pictographs found around the world, one of the most famous figure being the squatter/stick man with a dot on each side.

    So why would they associate them to the constellations? The plausible explanation, under the above proposition, is that after our ancestors witnessed those fantastic figures in the skies (and got almost all wiped out on the subsequent cataclysm(s)) they obviously started, when the conditions stabilized, to frenetically observe the heavens, wondering where could those once very present figures/deities have gone and if they could return and when. Since the stars is all that remained it doesn’t seem far fetched to assume that some cultures tried to fit the figures that most impressed them into those celestial light points.

    Regarding the phoenix and since it’s similar to the biblical Ziz we get from wikipedia:

    “…As he stood in the water, it merely covered his feet, and his head knocked against the sky … The bird the travelers saw was none other than the Ziz. His wings are so huge that unfurled they darken the sun … Once an egg of the Ziz fell to the ground and broke. The fluid from it flooded sixty cities, and the shock crushed three hundred cedars…”

    From the above we note a similar description about the myths of the world pillar, the holy mountain that united earth and heaven. Does that mean that the Phoenix/Ziz was a phase in the configuration? No certitude but plausible. To note also a similar biblical account when Daniel dreams about a giant man being destroyed and transformed into a mountain that filled all the world. This would seem to indicate, under the electrical view, that the famous squatter man metamorphosed into a column, the world mountain…

    The swan/cygnus seem to be another bird association (as the ibis) to the elongated bird archetype present around the world. The best example for the possible source of inspiration for this archetype can be seen in the extraordinary wall of pictographs found recently (2020) in Colombia, that extends for several miles (8-mile rock art wall I think they named it). This “wall” seem indeed quite extraordinary as many of the archetypal figures found worldwide can be seen, namely the handbag, the caduceus, elongated birds, bull/taurus, triangular waves (aquarius sign?), three points faces, the scorpion/crab, the feline archetype (explorers named it the panther I think…), many squatter man like figures as well as very well defined Peratt’s instability columns just as he describes in his paper (as an example check the one left of one could call the the “magic carpet” (Solomon’s magic flying carpet?…) as a clear example, as well as other symbols/figures.

    What’s even more extraordinary, and as you mentioned the egg motif of Gobekli Tepe, one of the orbs, the main orb if we can call it, just happen to have a very similar shape to the main enclosure of Gobekli, an unmistakable shape that can also be found in other parts of the world like in some NA earthworks. If you search for an image of Enki’s house a similar structure can also be seen but I’ve not verified the source so not sure if it really is the correct name. Some orbs above some Egyptian deities also seem to have a similitude but in this case it doesn’t seem as evident.

    To conclude I’m in no way dismissing the article as it’s undoubtedly interesting. Obviously it seems logical that the surrounding elements where people live get incorporated into the culture. I’m just suggesting that the core elements pre-date the addition/incorporation of other natural elements. This supposition can maybe be seen in stonehenge for example.

  4. Shan says:

    My Bible tells me we are created NOT evolved

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