Leftovers from a Neanderthal dinner that took place 90,000 years ago tell scientists much more than just what the ancient humans had for supper.
The find in a cave just south of Lisbon, Portugal give an insight into the Neanderthals that lived there.
Archaeological deposits at Gruta de Figueira Brava contain stone tools, charcoal, and shells and bones including evidence that the Neanderthals that called the southern Portuguese coastline home were cooking and eating crabs.
Other shellfish were found in the deposit, but the large majority were brown crabs.
“At the end of the last interglacial, Neanderthals regularly harvested large brown crabs,” says Dr Mariana Nabais of the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES-CERCA). “They were taking them in pools of the nearby rocky coast, targeting adult animals with an average carapace width of 16cm. The animals were brought whole to the cave, where they were roasted on coals and then eaten.”
Nabais and her colleagues determined that the crabs targeted by the Neanderthals of Gruta de Figueira Brava were mostly large adult crabs which would yield about 200g of meat.
They also ruled out other predators such as rodents or birds being involved in the crabs’ demise.
Approximately eight percent of the crab shells showed burn marks, indicating they were cooked at about 300-500°C. Other markings on the shell surfaces are indications that the crab exoskeletons were broken open to access the meat inside.
“Our results add an extra nail to the coffin of the obsolete notion that Neanderthals were primitive cave dwellers who could barely scrape a living off scavenged big-game carcasses,” Nabais says. “Together with the associated evidence for the large-scale consumption of limpets, mussels, clams, and a range of fish, our data falsify the notion that marine foods played a major role in the emergence of putatively superior cognitive abilities among early modern human populations of sub-Saharan Africa.”
The researchers say it’s unclear why Neanderthals chose to harvest crabs, but the evasive critters would have offered a nutritional boon for the prehistoric humans.
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“The notion of the Neanderthals as top-level carnivores living off large herbivores of the steppe-tundra is extremely biased,” adds Nabais. “Such views may well apply to some extent to the Neanderthal populations of Ice Age Europe’s periglacial belt, but not to those living in the southern peninsulas – and these southern peninsulas are where most of the continent’s humans lived all through the Palaeolithic, before, during and after the Neanderthals.”
The research is published in Frontiers in Environmental Archaeology.