Neanderthals Enjoyed Seafood, Too, New Evidence Suggests

The Figueira Brava site on the Atlantic coast of Portugal.

The Figueira Brava site on the Atlantic coast of Portugal.
Statue: P. Zilhão et al., 2020 / Science

Neanderthals who lived in Portugal during the last Ice Age consumed large amounts of seafood, according to new archaeological evidence. The discovery suggests that Neanderthals, like our modern human ancestors, made optimal use of marine resources.

Marine food sources such as fish, eels, mollusk and crab have been staples of the Iberian Neanderthal diet for tens of thousands of years, according to Research published today in Science.

Neanderthal waste piles, known as amid the language of archaeologists, with traces of food from the sea, were discovered at the site of Figueira Brava on the Atlantic coast of Portugal. The food waste in these centers, such as discarded bones and shells, was radiocarbon dated between 106,000 and 86,000 years ago, noting the intense and consistent use of marine resources by Neanderthals in this region for an extended period of time, according to the new article.

Shell fragments found in the cave.

Shell fragments found in the cave.
Statue: P. Zilhão et al., 2020 / Science

In addition, these Neanderthals also consumed terrestrial animals such as waterfowl and deer, pointing to a diet that can only be described as surf ‘n peat, as one researcher said it. But for the authors of the new study, led by archaeologist Joao Zilhão of the University of Barcelona, ​​this means that Iberian Neanderthals were not just hunter-gatherers – they were fisher-hunter-gatherers, in a discovery that bridged the gap between the behavior and separation further reduces Neanderthals from early modern people.

The fact that Neanderthals used marine resources is a controversial topic among some scientists, because of the inconsistent archaeological evidence.

For example, in 2008, paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer and his colleagues published proof which shows that Neanderthals who lived in two caves in Gibraltar used marine food sources, but “there were criticisms at the time that this behavior was probably rare and sporadic in Neanderthals, compared to the much richer material of contemporary early modern people living in the near the coasts of southern Africa, ”Stringer, a researcher from the Museum of Natural History in the UK who was not involved in the new study, explains in an email to Gizmodo.

Indeed, early modern people, also known as Homo sapienswho lived in southern Africa during the same period – the Middle Pleistocene – certainly chewed seafood, as evidenced by their abundant consumption of crustaceans about 160,000 years ago. The lack of evidence for this behavior among Neanderthals led to the some archaeologists believed that marine food was strictly the domain of modern humans.

It is important to resolve this debate, because seafood is a rich source of brain-boosting fatty acids. Marine diets could therefore have played an important role in human history, including Neanderthals.

That said, there is evidence of Neanderthals who exploit marine resources apart from the aforementioned Stringer paper.

Neanderthals collected shells for which they used jewelery and for making tools. The new discovery at Figueira Brava is important because it is the most comprehensive evidence yet to show that Neanderthals at least consistently lived on marine resources in Iberia on the coast. The new discovery also shows striking behavioral similarities between Neanderthals and early modern people.

The paleontological and archaeological material collected in Figueira Brava included evidence of molluscs, crabs and fish (including eels), as well as waterfowl, red deer, horses and even pine nuts. The researchers also found evidence of stone tools and other artifacts.

Eel vertebrae.

Eel vertebrae.
Statue: P. Zilhão et al., 2020 / Science

“The variable but consistent signal of this behavior across multiple archaeological layers in Figueira Brava provides robust evidence of systemic, long-term coastal adaptations by Neanderthals during the Pleistocene,” wrote University of Tübingen archaeologist Manuel Will in an accompanying Science Insights article. The new study “refutes the theory that Neanderthals were unable to efficiently extract various ocean resources in large quantities,” said Will, who was not involved in the new study. He added a warning: “one archaeological site does not make a pattern.”

Stringer said the new study “greatly contributes to the data showing that Neanderthals were certainly well adapted to living on marine and coastal resources,” but “we still need more evidence about the wider picture of Neanderthals versus modern agreements and differences in behavior before we can claim complete behavioral equality between them. ”

Despite these concerns, the new article does suggest a fishing, hunting and gathering lifestyle for the Iberian Neanderthals during the Middle Pleistocene.

Zilhão and colleagues speculate that other Neanderthal sites washed away as sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age, especially those on the European coast. If that’s the case, it may be difficult to find additional evidence elsewhere.

Hey, no one said archeology would be easy, but we’re getting closer to the truth with every passing discovery.

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