Neanderthals as seafood gourmets

“There are practically no behaviors left in which Neanderthals differed from the then living modern people”: Dirk Hoffmann from the University of Göttingen is convinced of that. Like dominoes, previous assumptions about the lower mental capacities of the extinct cousins ​​of our own line had fallen one after the other in recent years. So the Neanderthals themselves had a sense of art, similar to us.

Now the last bastion of modern people is falling. So far, if one thought that Neanderthals hardly got and ate seafood from the sea, a new study shows otherwise. In the “Science” magazine, Dirk Hoffmann and colleagues present a cave on the coast of Portugal in which Neanderthals had eaten mussels and other delicacies from the sea in abundance.

“Today the Figueira- Brava cave around 30 kilometers south of Lisbon right on the coast, ”says Dirk Hoffmann of the excavation site. Hoffmann has been researching this cave since 2010. Again and again water has trickled from the surface to the ground in these caves, from which lime precipitated, which over time became a thin sintered layer.

Up to 106. 000 Years-old food scraps

According to Hoffmann, the sintered layers examined are between 106.000 and 86.000 Year old. Between them, the researchers find several deposits, each over a period of around 4000 years, in which there are still many remains of the meals of the then cave inhabitants. According to the current state of research, the inhabitants of the Figueira Brava cave may only have been Neanderthals, even if modern humans already existed elsewhere.

Originally the cave was between 700 and 2000 meters from the beach – also because the climate was a little cooler than today. The reason for this is a previous ice age. When the sea level rose again after the ice age, the surf destroyed part of the originally much larger cave. Only at the back maybe five percent of the original deposits remained.

There, the researchers find not only traces of the Neanderthals' fire, but also the remains of their meals. In addition to pine nuts, which could only be harvested after climbing the tree tops, there was also plenty of meat from red deer, horses, ibex and aurochs on the menu.

The Neanderthals fetched a very large part of their food from the sea. This is how the researchers found the bones of eels and sharks that could be caught in the shallow water on the coast. The remains of giant alks, which amazingly resembled today's penguins, and ringed seals were also found in the sediments.

Bones of dolphins

These animals probably raised their offspring in the far north, but also swam in the milder areas off the coast of today's Portugal. Even the bones of dolphins have been discovered. “Possibly the Neanderthals were even on the sea to make prey,” suspects Hoffmann.

A large proportion of the food waste consists of the roasted shells of pocket crabs and, above all, types of mussels. “So the Neanderthals were as smart as the modern people of the same era on the coast of South Africa and used the vast resources of the sea skillfully.”

After all, you don't just have to harvest mussels good knowledge of ebb and flow. At the same time, the clever Neanderthals must have known in which season the seafood can contain toxic ingredients. The finds in the Figueira Brava cave also invalidate an old argument for the presumed superiority of modern humans: The food from the sea is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids and other ingredients that promote mental capacities. The minds of the Neanderthals could have reached the mental capacities of modern Stone Age people.