Neanderthal, a pioneer in harnessing marine resources

An international team, including researchers from the Pacea* research laboratory in Bordeaux, has just demonstrated that Neanderthals hunted, fished and harvested resources of marine origin in large quantities. In a study published on March 27, 2020 in the journal "Science", the authors propose a new scenario in which humans’ familiarity with the sea and its resources goes back much further and was more widespread than previously thought.

  • 22/04/2020

La grotte de Figueira Brava au Portugal ayant servi d'abri aux populations néandertaliennes pendant vingt millénaires ©Joao Zilhão La grotte de Figueira Brava au Portugal ayant servi d'abri aux populations néandertaliennes pendant vingt millénaires ©Joao Zilhão

Neanderthals, shells and crustaceans… The scene might come as a surprise, used as we are to images of Homo neanderthalensis living in the cold and hunting large herbivores, but an international research team including two scientists from the Pacea laboratory*Francesco d’Errico, a CNRS researcher in prehistory and Alain Queffelec, a CNRS research engineer in archeometry, contradicts this vision in an article published on March 27th, 2020 in Science.

The scientists discovered the remains of mollusks, crustaceans, fish, seabirds and marine mammals in a Portuguese cave that served as a shelter for Neanderthals between106,000 and 86,000 years BCE. The variety of the resources found in Figueira Brava even exceeds that discovered in some much more recent Portuguese sites, dated from between 9,000 and 7,500 years ago. The results of this work suggest that many groups of Neanderthals may well have shared this way of live in Mediterranean climates, far from the image we have of them tracking mammoths over the frozen steppes.

One highly influential model of our origins suggests that regular consumption of aquatic resources – rich in Omega 3 and other fatty acids that enable the development of brain tissue – may have fostered the increase in cognitive abilities among modern African populations during the last interglacial period (120,000-70,000 years before the present). This increase is thought to explain the early appearance of symbolic material cultures and complex technologies: body painting with ochre, items of jewelry, geometric carvings on ochre fragments and recipients made from ostrich eggs, tools crafted from bones and heating stone to facilitate the carving of tools. All this behavior shows a capacity for abstract thought and communication via symbols and complex learning modes. These are thought to have fostered the emergence of more organized societies whose population growth ended up colonizing Eurasia. In the wake of this colonization, Neanderthals and other populations that were “non-modern” (anatomically and, by deduction, cognitively) are seen as having died out "inevitably".

A way of life in a Mediterranean climate

The results presented in this article seem to tell a very different story. The cave of Figueira Brava in Portugal, the subject of the study, is located on the slopes of the Serra da Arrábida, 30km south of Lisbon, near the estuary of the Sado. It served as a shelter for Neanderthal populations for twenty thousand years, between 106,000 and 86,000 years ago, which is to say during the last interglacial period when the Earth’s climate was similar to what it is today. Today, the cave of Figueira Brava is located by the sea, but in the times when it was occupied, the distance from the coast varied from 750 to 2,000 meters.

Meticulous  analysis of the remains discovered during the digs revealed diverse subsistence strategies, with the consumption of mollusks (limpets, mussels and clams), crustaceans (brown crab and spider crab), fish (blue shark, eel, conger eel, bream, mullet), seabirds (mallard ducks, geese, cormorants, gannets, puffins, penguins, egrets, loons) and marine mammals (dolphins, gray seals). The Figueira Brava Neanderthals topped up this diet by hunting deer, ibexes, horses, aurochs and smaller prey, such as tortoises. Among the plant remains, olive, vine, fig and other species typical of Mediterranean climates were identified. The most abundant, however, was pine, with the wood serving as fuel while other remains included the shells of pine kernels. Ripe but still closed pinecones would be picked from the branches and stored in the cave, where they were opened by the heat from the fire to extract and eat the kernels.

The range of different resources found at Figueira Brava is greater than that observed in Mesolithic sites in Portugal dating from between 7,500 and 9,000 years ago and in the most intense phases of occupation, the density of the accumulation of mollusks is identical at Figueira Brava to that observed in these other sites. The latter also contain hundreds of burials, isotope analysis of which showed that such large quantities of remains of food of aquatic origin are indeed linked with a diet comprising a considerable component from the sea, representing as much as 50% of food intake. The team was thus able to deduce that this must also have been the case for the Neanderthal populations on the Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula.

Neanderthals also went fishing

Based on these findings, the researchers conclude that familiarity among humans with the sea and its resources is something that goes back much further and was more widespread than was previously thought. If habitual consumption of marine resources did play an important role in the development of cognitive capacities, then it did so on the scale of humanity as a whole. In fact, depending on the comparison parameters that are used, the density of the marine resources on this site is equal to or exceeds (even far exceeds) the range of variation observed on sites from the same period in South Africa.

The concept of Neanderthals as peoples of the cold specialized in hunting large herbivores also needs reviewing. This vision is indeed valid for the countries of central and northern Europe which were the pioneers in developing paleolithic archeology, such as France and Germany. Between 400,000 and 10,000 years ago, however, the earth’s climate was often colder than it is today and they were regions of steppe and tundra that were the northernmost territories inhabited by human populations. 

Large proportions of the human population of Europe lived in the southern regions, in particular in Italy and, above all, in the Iberian peninsula, where research only began later. It is only in the past 25 years that it has been able to begin to produce results in a continuous and coherent manner. In the same way that it is not logical to consider the way of life and economy of the Arctic peoples as being representative of the hunter-gatherers described by ethnography, it is not logical to consider the Neanderthals of the north as being representative of that population. In fact, many groups of Neanderthals may well have lived just like the occupants of Figueira Brava.

Scientific contacts

Francesco d'Errico
Archeologist / Pacea laboratory

Alain Queffelec
Research engineer in archeometry / Pacea laboratory

Bibliographic reference

Last Interglacial Iberian Neandertals as Fisher-Hunter-Gatherers. Science 367. J. Zilhão et al.