Neandertals dove and harvested clamshells for tools near Italy’s shores

Stone Age human relatives shed their reputation as one-trick mammoth hunters


Surface characteristics of clamshells such as these, found in a coastal Italian cave, suggest that Neandertals gathered the shells on a beach and in shallow water before sharpening their edges for use as tools.

P. Villa et al/PLOS ONE 2020

Often typecast as spear-wielding mammoth killers, some Neandertals were beachcombers and surf divers, researchers say.

At Moscerini Cave, located on Italy’s western coast, Neandertals collected clamshells on the beach and retrieved others from the Mediterranean Sea, say archaeologist Paola Villa of the University of Colorado Boulder Museum of Natural History and her colleagues. Our close, now extinct evolutionary relatives waded or dove into shallow waters to collect shells that they sharpened into scraping or cutting tools, the researchers report January 15 in PLOS ONE.

Of 167 clamshells with sharpened edges that previously were excavated in the cave, 40 displayed shiny, smooth surfaces characteristic of living clams taken from the seafloor, Villa’s team says. The remaining shells featured dull, worn surfaces, indicating that these finds had washed up on the beach and were gradually ground down before Neandertals used them as tools. Earlier dating of animal teeth unearthed near sharpened clam shells in Moscerini Cave suggested that Neandertals lived there roughly 100,000 years ago, at a time when Homo sapiens did not inhabit the region.

Consistent with the possibility that Neandertals plunged perhaps a few meters deep into Mediterranean waters to find submerged clams, another team has concluded that bony growths in the ear canals of as many as 13 of 23 European and southwest Asian Neandertal skulls look like “swimmer’s ear,” a condition in people today caused by frequent exposure to cold water and cold, moist air.

Ancient humans often lived by lakes, rivers and oceans (SN: 7/29/11). Several European excavations have pointed to seaside occupations by Neandertals (SN: 9/22/08).

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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