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
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.