Neanderthals dined on a menu of surf and turf with a sprinkling of pine nuts, an excavation of a coastal site in Portugal reveals.
This is the first firm evidence that our extinct cousins relied on food from the sea, and their flexible diet is yet more proof that they behaved in remarkably similar ways to modern humans.
The new dietary analysis comes from a site occupied by Neanderthals between 106,000 and 86,000 years ago in Figueira Brava, south of Lisbon. A painstaking excavation of fossil food remains, led by João Zilhão at the University of Barcelona, Spain, showed that the Neanderthals that lived there consumed a wide range of foods, dominated by seafood. “It’s a mixed diet,” says Zilhão.
They were fisher-hunter-gatherers, collecting large amounts limpets, mussels and clams, as well as brown and spider crabs in particular, he says. “Crabs were the most important marine resource they exploited.”
Fossil remains from the cave showed that fish, seal, dolphin, seabirds and land animals such as deer, horse, and wild goat were also on the menu. By contrast, Neanderthals living inland mainly hunted land animals such as mammoth, bison and woolly rhino.
The team also found evidence of a thriving economy based on pine trees. “They used the wood for fuel and collected the pine cones, stored them, then consumed them as needed by roasting the cones and cracking the nuts to eat the kernel,” says Zilhão.
Modern human diet
Finding out more about marine-based meals of the Iberian Neanderthals is overturning our understanding of how the modern human species, Homo sapiens, developed.
A diet rich in seafood is thought to have been crucial for the development of modern human cognition. Evidence for this idea comes from the caves at Pinnacle Point in South Africa, which shows that early modern humans ate marine foods as far back as 160,000 years ago.
The brain-boosting fatty acids contained in seafoods were thought to have led to a flourishing of cultural and technological innovations, such as the creation of shell bead ornaments and graphic drawings. Ultimately, these skills enabled the expansion of modern humans out of Africa, and the demise of the Neanderthal and Denisovan populations living in Eurasia – or so the theory goes.
The seafood-eating habits of Neanderthals hadn’t been observed until now, because many of the coastal areas that existed at that time have disappeared. The Figueira Brava region of Portugal is one of the few places in Europe where such sites can be found, because almost all are now underwater due to sea level rise, or were destroyed by glaciation. “There is no chance of finding them,” says Zilhão.
Journal reference: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz7943
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