European Neanderthals feasted on fresh seafood, boosting their brain

The more we look, the more we find evidence that the Neanderthals were similar to modern humans. In the latest study, researchers found evidence that at least some groups of Neanderthals might have not feasted on mammoth steak — instead preferring fresh shark or dolphin.

Surf and turf

Neanderthals lived at the Figueira Brava site in Portugal between 86,000 and 106,000 years ago. They had a varied lifestyle, hunting, gathering, but also relying on the sea for sustenance.

Archaeologists working at the site have found evidence that Neanderthals were consuming fish, birds, and mammals. As the excavation progressed, researchers found more and more evidence that the Neanderthal’s seafood diet was rich and varied.

“Figueira Brava provides the first record of significant marine resource consumption among Europe’s Neanderthals,” the researchers wrote in the study.

They found evidence that Neanderthals were consuming limpet, mussels, clams, brown crabs, spider crabs, sharks, eels, sea breams, mullets, even dolphins and seals. They also hunted marine birds such as mallards, common scoters (a large sea duck), geese, cormorants, gannets, shags, auks, egrets and loons. Meanwhile, on land, they hunted red deer, goats, horses, tortoises and aurochs, an extinct wild ox. To supplement their diet, they used olive and fig trees as well as pine nuts taken from pine trees.

Patella vulgata shells (the largest is 5 cm across) from Area F (left top and bottom, units IH4 and IH6, respectively; right, unit IH8).

This is a far cry from the image we typically have about Neanderthals — that they lived in cold environments, hunting mammoths to survive. The Figueira Brava site shows a completely different picture, of sophisticated hunter-gatherer societies.

The finding of seafood is also particularly intriguing. Several anthropologists support a theory that the brain-boosting fatty acids found in seafood enhanced our ancestors’ cognitive abilities.

This suggests that if this is indeed the case, it wasn’t our advantage alone — Neanderthals also did it.

“If this common consumption of marine resources played an important role in the development of cognitive skills, it did so on the entire humanity, including Neanderthals, and not only the African population that spread later,” said João Zilhão, study author and Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies researcher at the University of Barcelona.

The first evidence that humans used marine resources dates to around 160,000 years ago, in Southern Africa.

There was another significant finding at the site, Zilhão and colleagues claim: middens. Essentially, an organized dump structure. This is a very significant find because it would suggest that Neanderthals were organized and structured in their behavior.

At any rate, time and time again, Neanderthals show us that the image of Neanderthals as brutes is strongly unjustified — they were every bit as sophisticated and intelligent as humans, if not more.

The study has been published in Science.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.