Neandertals’ extensive seafood menu rivals that of ancient humans

Finds from a coastal cave in Portugal reveal repeated ocean foraging for this European hominid

Figueira Brava

Shellfish and other marine foods unearthed at Figueira Brava, a cave on Portugal’s coast, point to an extensive use of marine resources by Neandertals from around 106,000 to 86,000 years ago.

J. Zilhão et al/Science 2020

Surf’s up, Neandertals.

Our close evolutionary cousins obtained shellfish, crabs, fish and other marine munchies along Europe’s Atlantic coast with all the savvy and gusto of ancient humans who foraged along southern Africa’s shoreline, say archaeologist João Zilhão of the University of Barcelona and his colleagues.

Neandertals consumed a diverse menu of sea and land foods while occupying Figueira Brava cave, on Portugal’s coast, for extended periods between around 106,000 and 86,000 years ago, Zilhão’s group says. Excavations there show for the first time that Neandertals matched Stone Age Homo sapiens in their ability to exploit seafood rich in brain-enhancing fatty acids, the scientists report in the March 27  Science. This discovery adds to controversial evidence that Neandertals engaged in various behaviors traditionally thought to have characterized only H. sapiens, such as creating cave art and elaborate personal ornaments (SN: 10/28/19; SN: 3/20/15).

Extensive seaside activity at Figueira Brava also expands on preliminary evidence of Neandertal clamshell collecting on the beach and in shallow Mediterranean waters (SN: 1/15/20). Other excavations had suggested Neandertals occasionally gathered shellfish and hunted or scavenged sea animals starting around 110,000 years ago (SN: 9/22/08).

But repeated bouts of Neandertal foraging at Figueira Brava over a roughly 20,000-year span point to coastal activity as extensive as that of H. sapiens who harvested shellfish at South Africa’s Pinnacle Point between 164,000 and 120,000 years ago, Zilhão says (SN: 7/29/11).

Intensive shellfish collecting requires tracking of the tides and the seasons, “certainly one of the hallmarks of behavioral adaptability of early Neandertals [in Europe] and modern humans in South Africa,” says archaeologist Katerina Douka of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. She did not participate in the new study.

Zilhão regards Neandertals as an ancient H. sapiens variant that developed in Europe and Asia, not a separate species as they are often portrayed. “The early H. sapiens of Europe, people whom we came to know as Neandertals, exploited marine resources at least as intensively as, if not more intensively than, [Stone Age] South Africans living in comparable habitats and circumstances,” he says.

Figueira Brava lies on the 20-kilometer-long coastline of Arrábida, a mountain range 30 kilometers south of Lisbon. It’s the only place on Europe’s Atlantic coast where present-day shorelines and ancient, now-underwater shorelines are short distances apart, Zilhão says. So only here would Neandertals have caught seafood and brought it back to nearby caves such as Figueira Brava, rather than immediately eating what they had caught before making a long trek inland.

Excavations from 2010 to 2013 unearthed a range of seafood remains from a time when Neandertals, but not H. sapiens, inhabited Europe. Chemical analyses of Figueira Brava sediments and mineral formations provided age estimates for Neandertal activity.

Menu items included mussels, limpets, eels and even sharks, which could have been caught in shallow water or when trapped in large rock pools by ebbing tides. Other foods eaten by Figueira Brava Neandertals included tortoises, seals, ducks, geese, red deer, horse, ibex (a kind of wild goat), now-extinct wild cattle called aurochs and pine nuts. Numerous stone tools and toolmaking debris were also found. Burned pieces of wood in excavated sediment came from intentionally lit fires, probably used for cooking, warmth or both, the researchers say.

Bones from the spine of a shark (left) and an eel (right) were among the many seafood remains found at a cave on Portugal’s coast once frequented by Neandertals.J. Zilhão et al./Science 2020

Discoveries at Figueira Brava challenge past assertions that Neandertals’ seaside visits were rare and unplanned, says evolutionary ecologist Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar National Museum, who was not part of the excavation team. “Neandertals were every bit human,” he adds, echoing Zilhão’s argument.

But archaeologist Manuel Will of the University of Tübingen in Germany disagrees. “The new study narrows the gap between H. sapiens and [Neandertals], but does not close it,” he writes in a commentary published in the same issue of Science.

Taking into account nearly 60 coastal sites occupied either by Neandertals or H. sapiens between around 300,000 and 40,000 years ago, H. sapiens more intensively exploited coastal resources, Will says. For instance, shell beads, a demanding ornament to make, have mainly been found at H. sapiens sites.

But shell beads are not signs of intensive seafood consumption, Zilhão responds. Klasies River, a H. sapiens coastal site in South Africa that’s especially rich in shellfish remains, has not yielded a single shell bead, he says. The key point is that the density and diversity of Neandertals’ seafood at Figueira Brava equals or exceeds that at South African H. sapiens sites.

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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