Neandertals’ extensive seafood menu rivals that of ancient humans

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.

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