Beach-combing Neanderthals dove for shells

January 15, 2020

Did Neanderthals wear swimsuits? Probably not. But a new study suggests that some of these ancient humans might have spent a lot of time at the beach. They may even have dived into the cool waters of the Mediterranean Sea to gather clam shells.

The findings come from Grotta dei Moscerini, a picturesque cave that sits just 10 feet above a beach in what is today the Latium region of central Italy.

In 1949, archaeologists working at the site dug up some unusual artifacts: dozens of seashells that Neanderthals had picked up, then shaped into sharp tools roughly 90,000 years ago.

Now, a team led by Paola Villa of the University of Colorado Boulder has uncovered new secrets from those decades-old discoveries. In research published today in the journal PLOS ONE, she and her colleagues report that the Neanderthals didn't just collect shells that were lying out on the beach. They may have actually held their breath and went diving for the perfect shells to meet their needs.

Villa, an adjoint curator in the CU Museum of Natural History, said the results show that Neanderthals may have had a much closer connection to the sea than many scientists thought.

"The fact they were exploiting marine resources was something that was known," Villa said. "But until recently, no one really paid much attention to it."

Cave discoveries

When archaeologists first found shell tools in Grotta dei Moscerini, it came as a surprise. While Neanderthals are well-known for crafting spear tips out of stone, few examples exist of them turning shells into tools.

But the find wasn't a fluke. The 1949 excavation of the cave unearthed 171 such tools, all valves from shell belonging to a local species of mollusk called the smooth clam (Callista chione). Villa explained that the ancient humans used stone hammers to chip away at these shells, forming cutting edges that would have stayed thin and sharp for a long time.

"No matter how many times you retouch a clam shell, its cutting edge will remain very thin and sharp," she said.

But did the Neanderthals, like many beachgoers today, simply collect these shells while taking a stroll along the sand?

To find out, Villa and her colleagues took a closer look at those tools. In the process, they found something they weren't expecting. Nearly three-quarters of the Moscerini shell tools had opaque and slightly abraded exteriors, as if they had been sanded down over time. That's what you'd expect to see, Villa said, on shells that had washed up on a sandy beach.

The rest of the shells had a shiny, smooth exterior.

Those shells, which also tended to be a little bit bigger, had to have been plucked directly from the seafloor as live animals.

"It's quite possible that the Neanderthals were collecting shells as far down as 2 to 4 meters," Villa said. "Of course, they did not have scuba equipment."

Researchers also turned up a large number of pumice stones from the cave that Neanderthals had collected and may have used as abrading tools. The stones, Villa and her colleagues determined, washed onto the Moscerini beach from volcanic eruptions that occurred more than 40 miles to the south.

Going for a dip

She's not alone in painting a picture of beach-loving Neanderthals.

In an earlier study, for example, a team led by anthropologist Erik Trinkaus identified bony growths on the ears of a few Neanderthal skeletons. These features, called "swimmer's ear," can be found in people who practice aquatic sports today.

For Villa, the findings are yet more proof that Neanderthals were just as flexible and creative as their human relatives when it came to eking out a living--a strong contrast to their representation in popular culture as a crude cavemen who lived by hunting or scavenging mammoths.

"People are beginning to understand that Neanderthals didn't just hunt large mammals," Villa said. "They also did things like freshwater fishing and even skin diving."

Other coauthors on the new study included researchers from the French National Centre for Scientific Research, the University of Geneva, Roma Tre University, Sapienza University of Rome and the University of Pisa.
-end-


University of Colorado at Boulder

Related Science Articles from Brightsurf:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.

Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.

Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.

World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.

PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.

Read More: Science News and Science Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.