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New data suggests that our evolutionary cousins the Neanderthals were diving in the ocean for clams.

It adds to mounting evidence that the old picture of these ancient people as brutish and unimaginative is wrong. Until now, there had been little clear evidence that Neanderthals were swimmers or even divers. But a team of researchers who analysed shells from a cave in Italy said that some must have been gathered from the seafloor by Neanderthals. The Neanderthals living at Grotta dei Moscerini in the Latium region around 90,000 years ago were shaping the clam shells into sharp tools. Paolo Villa, from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and colleagues, analysed 171 such tools, which all came from a local species of mollusc called the smooth clam (Callista chione). The tools were excavated by archaeologists at the end of the 1940s. The beached specimens were opaque, sanded down through being knocked against pebbles on the shore, perforated by other marine organisms and encrusted with barnacles. Most of the specimens at Grotta dei Moscerini fit the criteria of shells that were collected on a beach. But one quarter of them had a shiny smooth exterior, showing no signs of such wear and tear. This suggested they were collected from the seafloor while the clams were alive. "It's quite possible that the Neanderthals were collecting shells as far down as four metres," said Paola Villa. The evidence is in stark contrast to our old view of the Neanderthals spending much of their time chasing or scavenging big game animals. It's known that Neanderthals gathered mussels from estuaries and fished in shallow waters, but there has been little clear evidence for physical aquatic activities. "It's more evidence to place Neanderthals into these coastal environments and at points in time making use of coastal resources, not just for food, but also as a raw material for tools," said Dr Pope. He said that decades ago, this type of resource-gathering had been used to distinguish early examples of our own species, Homo sapiens, from the Neanderthals. "We can't find that distinction anymore," he said.

Imprint: This blog post contains extracts of a BBC Science & Environment article.

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