Neanderthals collected seashells by the seashore. They also may have swum underwater to retrieve live clams to later shape into sharp tools and scrapers, according to a new study.
“Our findings enlarge our knowledge of the range of capacities Neanderthals had,” said Sylvain Soriano, an archaeologist from Paris Nanterre University and an author of the paper. “Now we can say that they were able to dive in shallow water.”
The conclusion is based on more than 170 handmade shell tools found in an Italian cave. The finding provides insight into how Neanderthals, who hunted deer with flint-tipped spears and used fire to produce birch tar, took advantage of their aquatic resources to fit their needs and fill their utility belts. The paper was published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.
Researchers uncovered Grotta dei Moscerini on the western coast of Italy at the base of a limestone cliff in the late 1930s. During an excavation in 1949, archaeologists using mesh sieves dug up dozens of seashells. The cave’s Neanderthal inhabitants had sharpened or modified many of the shells into thin cutting tools, similar to how they had chipped flint into stone blades. Some of the shell tools dated back to around 100,000 years ago.
Paola Villa, an archaeologist from the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and lead author off the paper, studied the site’s tools from museum collections. The nearly 170 shell tools came from a smooth clam species that still lives in the area, Callista chione.
She took the tools to Carlo Smriglio, a shell specialist at Roma Tre University, who analyzed them underneath a microscope. Dr. Smriglio found differences on the shells that helped the team distinguish between the dead clam shells the Neanderthals had picked up from the beach from the living ones they had grabbed from the seafloor.
“The live animals that lived in the sea had a shiny shell,” said Dr. Villa. “The ones that are thrown by storms or dragged by a current onto the beach, because they sat in the sun and in the sand, their outer shells are opaque and not as shiny.”
Another difference was that the shells that had been lounging on the beach before being brought into the cave were worn and abraded on the outside while the other shells were more smooth. The team found that nearly a quarter of the shells had come from living clams retrieved from the water.
The Neanderthals, Dr. Villa said, most likely knew that these clams buried themselves in the sandy seafloor and that the mollusks could be spotted by the siphons that protruded through the sand. In some cases, the Neanderthals may have gone skin diving as deep as 6 to 13 feet.
“Essentially, what they had to do was hold their breath and put their head underwater to see where to scoop with their hands in the sand to get the clam,” said Dr. Villa.
The findings support previous research that suggests Neanderthals waded or swam through water, and even developed swimmer’s ear.
The team also reported finding pumice stones from the cave.
“There never was any record of Neanderthals collecting pumices,” said Dr. Villa. The team doesn’t know what the Neanderthals used the pumices for, but one possibility is that they collected the rocks like we do today, to exfoliate dead skin from our feet and bodies.
“This study is further evidence of the rich behavioral complexity of this human species, and their great capability to adapt to the environment and to exploit at best the resources that were available.”
Dr. Villa said her findings, along with many other recent discoveries, are helping reshape the modern image of our ancient relatives.
“Stop using the word ‘Neanderthal’ to mean a cretin or idiot,” said Dr. Villa. “It’s no longer true.”