Neanderthals ate brain food from the sea

Neanderthals were quite the foodies, it seems, as their diets included not only hunted animals and plant foods, but also a cornucopia of food from the ocean, scientists have discovered.

This is significant because a prominent theory describing the origins of Homo sapiens out of Africa says seafood rich in omega-3 fats – docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in particular – and other nutrients boosted our brain capacity to make us the intelligent species that we are today.

Conversely, a dearth of evidence for marine food consumption in ancient Europe has suggested that Neanderthals lacked the ability to exploit and adapt to the coast, and it was thought this reflected their simple existence and subsequent extinction.

The new discovery that upends this notion was made by a team of European researchers led by João Zilhão from the University of Barcelona, Spain, in the cave of Figueira Brava on the Serra da Arrábida slopes in Portugal. 

Using uranium-thorium methodology, the team dated the layers of seafood remains, preserved in calcite deposits, as between 86,000 and 160,000 years old, the period during which Neanderthals settled in Europe.

The cave is located on a steep shelf by the waterfront, 30 kilometres south of Lisbon, but back then it was up to two kilometres from the coast. Its protection from erosion provides a unique opportunity to investigate evidence of marine food debris.

“Europe’s Atlantic façade boasts resource-rich coastal waters comparable to those of South Africa,” the authors write in the journal Science.

“From Scandinavia to France, however, any evidence for the Last Interglacial exploitation of marine resources would have been lost to subsequent icecap advances and postglacial submersion of the wide continental platform.”

The protected cave deposits evidence a rich diet of various molluscs, crustaceans and fish as well as waterfowl and marine mammals such as dolphins and seals, comparable to that shown by the fossil record of African populations at around the same time.

Seafood comprised about half of their diet, complemented by hunted animals including deer, goats, horses, aurochs and smaller prey such as tortoises, along with evidence of plant foods including pine nuts, olives, figs and more.

The new findings add to evidence that Neanderthals were more sophisticated than their reputation as primitive cavemen credits them for.

The researchers say it ties in with other discoveries over the past decade, including cave paintings in the Iberian Peninsula, pendants and shell containers crafted using perforated marine shells and coloured using ochre.

Zilhão says together they “support a view on human evolution in which the known fossil variants, such as Neanderthals’ in Europe and its African anatomy contemporaries – more similar to ours – should be understood as remains from our ancestors, not as different higher-lower species”.

“Consistent with rapidly accumulating evidence that Neandertals possessed a fully symbolic material culture,” the authors conclude, “the subsistence evidence reported here further questions the behavioural gap once thought to separate them from modern humans.”

In an accompanying commentary, Manuel Will from the University of Tübingen, Germany, agrees the researchers show compelling evidence that Neanderthals gathered a rich array of marine foods rivalling those found in South African sites.

He also notes that “the new study narrows the gap between H. sapiens and its closest ancestor but does not close it”.

Highlighting the vast evidence gap still remaining, Will calls for more interdisciplinary research into links between seafood consumption and brain development in the context of a renewed look at the movements and dispersal of our ancestors.

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