Neanderthals Ate Dolphins, Seals, Cave Remains Suggest

John Roach
for National Geographic News
September 22, 2008
Neanderthals living in a pair of caves on the Mediterranean Sea regularly feasted on mussels, fish, and other types of marine life, according to a new study.

The finding suggests that Neanderthals actively foraged for seafood just like early modern humans, according to Clive Finlayson, an anthropologist at the Gibraltar Museum.

Neanderthals and modern humans are distinct species that split from a common ancestor several hundred thousand years ago.

(Test your Neanderthal knowledge with our online quiz.)

Why modern humans thrived and Neanderthals ultimately failed has long been a topic of scientific intrigue, and previous research had suggested that the ability to exploit marine resources was one of the defining characteristics for the success of modern humans.

But the new research may eliminate sophisticated foraging skills from the list of potential advantages unique to humans.

"I don't think that the success of one or the other had to do with subsistence, with the way they hunted or fed," Finlayson said.

"There may be other factors coming into this, or it may just have been a question of luck."

Seafood Feasts

The new theory is based on excavations of two caves on the western edge of Gibraltar, a British territory at the southern tip of Spain (see map).

Previous studies showed Neanderthals periodically occupied the caves as recently as 28,000 years ago.

(Related: "Neandertal's Last Stand Was in Gibraltar, Study Suggests" [September 13, 2006].)

Inside the caves Finlayson and his colleagues found mussel shells and the bones of seals, dolphins, and fish mixed in with the remains of deer and other land mammals.

Many of the bones show signs of being cooked over a fire, and some have marks left by stone tools used to cleave off chunks of flesh.

Seafood remains are found throughout various layers in the caves, indicating that Neanderthals regularly exploited marine resources for tens of thousands of years.

"It seems to suggest that this wasn't a one-off, but that these guys were doing it on a regular basis," Finlayson said.

He and colleagues describe the findings online today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Systematic Foraging?

Curtis Marean is an anthropologist at Arizona State University in Tempe who has found evidence that prehistoric humans were feasting on seafood in South Africa 165,000 years ago.

Marean said the new study clearly shows that Neanderthals occasionally ate seafood. But he is not convinced their exploitation of seafood was on par with that of early modern humans in Africa.

"I don't think there's enough evidence here to indicate that they are systematically being a coastal forager in the sense that we think of coastal foragers," he said.

In South Africa, Marean noted, scientists have found waste piles called shell middens that date back nearly a hundred thousand years. These piles contain several thousand pieces of shellfish discarded by humans.

By contrast, the Gibraltar caves yielded just 149 pieces of shellfish. Those pieces could be from a handful of mussels, Marean noted.

The differences in abundance could stem from different availabilities of seafood at the two sites, or in the abilities of the two species to actively forage for ocean food, he added.

To resolve the issue, Marean recommends a systematic comparison of Neanderthal and human seafood collection at sites with similar availability.

"Were Neanderthals [exploiting seafood] like we expect they would if they were modern? And if they weren't, then the question is: Why?" he said.

"We could be getting into something interesting there, for sure."

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