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Neanderthal tools included shell scrapers. Source: procy_ab & Comugnero Silvana / Adobe Stock

Coastal Neanderthals Went Diving For Tools

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Neanderthals are known to have used tools, but the extent to which they were able to exploit coastal resources has been questioned. New research shows they collected clam shells and volcanic rock from the beach and coastal waters of Italy during the Middle Paleolithic.

This information comes from a new study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Paola Villa of the University of Colorado and colleagues. In this study, Villa and colleagues explored artifacts from the Neanderthal archaeological cave site of Grotta dei Moscerini in Italy, one of two Neanderthal sites in the country with an abundance of hand-modified clam shells, dating back to around 100,000 years ago.

Neanderthal Tools: Why Shell Scrapers?

The authors examined 171 modified shells, most of which had be retouched to be used as scrapers. All of these shells belonged to the Mediterranean smooth clam species Callista chione . Based on the state of preservation of the shells, including shell damage and encrustation on the shells by marine organisms, the authors inferred that nearly a quarter of the shells had been collected underwater from the sea floor, as live animals, as opposed to being washed up on the beach.

Discussing the amount of effort needed by the Neanderthals to accomplish the task, Villa said , “It's quite possible that the Neanderthals were collecting shells as far down as 2 to 4 meters [about six to 13 feet]. Of course, they did not have scuba equipment .”

 The authors examined 171 modified shells. (A-D Carlo Smriglio/E & F Barbara Wilkens)

The authors examined 171 modified shells. (A-D Carlo Smriglio/E & F Barbara Wilkens )

In the same cave sediments, the authors also found abundant pumice stones likely used as abrading tools, which apparently drifted via sea currents from erupting volcanoes in the Gulf of Naples (70 km (43.5 miles) south) onto the Moscerini beach, where they were collected by Neanderthals.

Neanderthals May Have Taught Humans

These findings join a growing list of evidence that Neanderthals in Western Europe were in the practice of wading or diving into coastal waters to collect resources long before Homo sapiens brought these habits to the region.

It has even been suggested in previous studies that Neanderthals may have taught Homo sapiens how to make tools . One example of this hypothesis comes from 50,000-year-old tools made from deer ribs  found in the southwest of France. The archaeological record suggests that Homo sapiens entering that region at that time only had pointed bone tools before meeting the local Neanderthals.

Did Neanderthals teach humans how to make tools? (Andy Ilmberger /Adobe Stock)

Did Neanderthals teach humans how to make tools? ( Andy Ilmberger /Adobe Stock)

The authors of the current study also note that shell tools were abundant in sediment layers that had few stone tools , suggesting Neanderthals might have turned to making shell tools during times where more typical stone materials were scarce (though it's also possible that clam shells were used because they have a thin and sharp cutting edge, which can be maintained through re-sharpening, unlike flint tools).

The authors add:

"The cave opens on a beach. It has a large assemblage of 171 tools made of shells collected on the beach or gathered directly from the sea floor as live animals by skin diving Neanderthals. Skin diving for shells or fresh water fishing in low waters was a common activity of Neanderthals, according to data from other sites and from an anatomical study published by E. Trinkaus. Neanderthals also collected pumices erupted from volcanoes in the gulf of Naples and transported by sea to the beach."

Health Problems arose Foraging from the Sea?

An August 2019 study showed that there was a high prevalence of ‘swimmer’s ear’ aka ‘surfer’s ear’ in Neanderthals. The researchers in that study believed that the health problem may have been due to Neanderthals exploiting aquatic resources.

The structure of the Eustachian Tube in a Neanderthal male and it's similarity to the human infant. (SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University)

The structure of the Eustachian Tube in a Neanderthal male and it's similarity to the human infant. ( SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University )

Top Image: Neanderthal tools included shell scrapers. Source: procy_ab & Comugnero Silvana / Adobe Stock

The article, originally titled ‘ Neanderthals went underwater for their tools’ was first published on Science Daily and has been modified for style and length.

Source: PLOS. "Neanderthals went underwater for their tools: Neanderthals collected clam shells and pumice from coastal waters to use as tools." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 January 2020.

References

Paola Villa, Sylvain Soriano, Luca Pollarolo, Carlo Smriglio, Mario Gaeta, Massimo D’Orazio, Jacopo Conforti, Carlo Tozzi . Neandertals on the beach: Use of marine resources at Grotta dei Moscerini (Latium, Italy) .’ PLOS ONE , 2020; 15 (1): e0226690 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0226690

Comments

IJ Brown's picture

“….the authors inferred that nearly a quarter of the shells had been collected underwater from the sea floor…..it’s quite possibel….”  This is typical of language that suggests soemthing new when it’s just a guess. I wonder of tese ‘experts’ could explain why I can pick up perfect shells on the sea shore without getting wet? No? Mmmmm.  

Pete Wagner's picture

Despite the deceptive photos, the perfect tool for plucking shellfish from the shallows STILL grows from our fingers!

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