A stash of marine debris in a portuguese cave has further shortened the alleged capacity gap between Neanderthals and modern humans (homo sapiens). Hundreds of shells and remains of crustaceans, fish and marine mammals have appeared in the cave of Figueira Brava, near Lisbon, according to an article published today in the magazine ‘Science’. That cave was populated by Neanderthals from 106,000 to 86,000 years ago.
No evidence had ever been found before that these ancient humans exploited the sea at that level. Until now, findings of this type have been made only in southern Africa, in Sapiens settlements from around 160,000 years ago. This supported the theory that the contribution of fatty acids and omega 3 from fishing would have intelligence driven of modern humans over that of Neanderthals. The new finding puts it in question.
The diet in Figueira Brava included mollusks, sea goats, blue shark, bream, sea birds, dolphins and seals. Cattle, turtles were also eaten and there are traces of olive trees, vines, fig trees and, above all, stone pine, which was used to burn and obtain pine nuts to eat.
Up to half of the diet depended on the sea, according to estimates made in nearby caves with similar volumes of remains. In them are modern human skeletons that retain collagen, from which you can measure exactly what they ate.
“It is not known if they fished with tools. The hunter-gatherers know catch fish with your hands in shallow water. Surely they should have sacks or baskets to take the fish from the sea to the cave, “he explains. Joao Zilhao, Researcher at the Universities of Lisbon and the University of Barcelona (UB), and co-author of the work.
“Fishing by hand requires dip your head. This confirms that the great bone growth in the outer ear of Neanderthals could be related to that technique, “he says. Paola Villa, a researcher at the University of Colorado Museum, not involved in the work.
That Neanderthals fished in shallow waters was already known, from marine remains found in other caves. Even used shells to make tools or pendants. New is the large volume that has been found in the Portuguese cave.
In the caves of the Mediterranean there is less because it is a less productive sea than the Atlantic Ocean, according to the authors of the last work. As for the Atlantic, the caves closest to the sea were mostly submerged by the sea level rise after the last ice age, or by ice caps in northern Europe.
“The Figueira Brava deposit is extraordinary,” says Zilhao. In front of him is a underwater cannon that in the Neanderthal era, when the water was 25 to 50 meters lower, it still existed in the form of fjord. So the cave was close enough to the water (between 750 meters and two kilometers) so that it would be convenient to take the fish home. In addition, its external part was protected by stones when the sea rose.
The consumption of seafood has been associated in the past with a supposed cognitive advantage of sapiens over Neanderthals. Seafood they provide substances and they are also easier to digest. The energy saved in digestion is invested in cognitive development, as is the case with cooked food.
“If the habitual consumption of marine resources influenced the development of Cognitive abilities, did it in all humanity, including Neanderthals, not only in the African population [de sapiens] which later expanded, “says Zilhao.
“We’re rediscovering Neanderthals. We are more aware that we resemble them, economically, socially and cognitively, “he agrees. Palmira Saladié, researcher at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleocology and Social Evolution (IPHES), not involved in the work.
“But while many of the oldest modern human sites in Africa are located on the coast, it must be remembered that Neanderthals occupied all of western Eurasia, thousands of kilometers from the sea. So I don’t know how much can be generalized “, he clarifies Carles Lalueza-Fox, a researcher at the Institut de Biologia Evolutiva, who has not participated in this research.
Were Neanderthals just another ‘race’ of modern humans?
The mass consumption of seafood by Neanderthals is another peak blow to the imaginary wall that separates them from the sapiens. “Neanderthals are also sapiens. We have to stop talking about two species at once. We are talking about races of the same species, “says Joao Zilhao. The last decade of findings has revealed that both groups have symbolic behaviors and that modern humans have inherited large parts of the DNA of Neanderthals.
“Obviously there are differences in physical appearance. We have been assuming that the difference in appearance corresponds to a cognitive difference. This is a heritage of racism“says the researcher.
According to Zilhao, the sapiens did not extinguish the Neanderthals for being superior to them, but they mixed during a long process. Today’s humans are more like the former than the latter, simply because the former were between 100 and 1,000 times more numerous.
“It is a matter of debate. We talk about their extinction, but if we have their DNA, their extinction should not have been very forceful. Peror I don’t dare to say if they are different species or not “, Palmira Saladié points out.
“For geneticists, the definition of species is arbitrary: they are different lineages or populations, close enough to hybridize “, concludes Carles Lalueza Fox.