1.15.2020 7:00 PM

Science

Skin-diving study indicates Neanderthals had 'capacity for innovation'

New research proves Neanderthals knew how to exploit natural resources beyond the land.

Paul Hudson/Flickr

Neanderthals are most often associated with a particular scene: A cold Eurasian tundra, spear in hand, giving chase to a mammoth. But a new study presents a more varied (and appealing) life pursuit — diving into the Mediterranean off the shores of Italy, in pursuit of shells.

A new analysis of 171 clamshells indicates Neanderthals often collected shells from the seafloor, brought them to the surface, and made them into tools. They also used shells and pumice stones that washed to shore in a similar way, turning them into devices that could cut and scrape.

The study was published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

Study co-author Paola Villa, curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, tells Inverse that the finding suggests that the exploitation of submerged aquatic resources, as well as the collection of pumices (which was common in later communities), was a part of Neanderthal behavior well before the arrival of modern humans in western Europe.

“Neanderthals had the technical competence, capacity for innovation, and broad knowledge of environmental resources that are generally attributed to modern humans only,” Villa says.

At the time these Neanderthals were hunting for shells, most anatomically modern humans were still living in Africa.

Ancient clam diving

The hand-modified clamshell tools date back to around 100,000 years ago. They were found in a cave called Grotta dei Moscerini — a spot on the Italian coast that lies a two-hour drive from Rome.

The cave was originally discovered during a 1936 survey of coastal caves, and excavated in 1949 by the archeologist A.C. Blanc, geologist Aldo Segre, and members of the Italian Institute of Human Paleontology.

The Grotta dei Moscerini was first excavated in 1949.Paola Villa

Villa’s study is part of a larger investigation into how Neanderthals used technology. We now know, for example, that Neanderthals used stone tools for tasks like creating art, hunting, and woodworking. What’s been unclear is how often they exploited coastal resources — something another ancient human species, Homo erectus, did.

In this study, analysis of the shells — how they’ve been damaged, modified, and if they show remains of the clams that once lived in them — indicates that at least a quarter of the shells were collected underwater.

A sample of the clamshell tools.Paola Villa

This means Neanderthals would have had to wade and dive into water and scoop them up with their hands — all without the conveniences of breathing equipment, waders, or boats and dredges — the tools modern-day clam hunters rely on. The Neanderthal system was, admittedly, not super effective: Frequencies of shell tools in the sediment layers around the grotto are “never very high,” the researchers say.

Other theories suggest Neanderthals whose remains have been found near coasts habitually spent time in cold water because of a certain anatomical feature. Their skeletons tend to have bony growths inside their ear canals — a biological signature of being regularly in cold water. These growths are called exostoses and are quite common among Neanderthal remains, suggesting they were frequently in the waves.

Today, the Grotta dei Moscerini is no longer accessible — it was buried in the 1970s under rocks and boulders; a victim to roadside construction. These collected shells and pumice rocks are among what little we have left as evidence of the grotto’s past inhabitants — ancient people who knew how to use natural resources in order to thrive, well before other types of humans arrived.

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