Ancient Neanderthal Leftovers Reveal How Skilled Our Distant Cousins Were

“Our results add an extra nail to the coffin of the obsolete notion that Neanderthals were primitive cave dwellers.”

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The Neanderthal woman was re-created and built by Dutch artists Andrie and Alfons Kennis. Research i...
Joe McNally/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There’s no one way to cook up a crab. Some like the tender, sweet meat nestled in bite-sized flaky puff pastry a la crab rangoon, while others like it smothered in tangy lemon juice and aromatic garlic butter. But one thing is for sure: the crustacean sensation transcends the palates of modern-day humans. According to new research, tens of thousands of years ago, our hominid ancestors, the Neanderthals, wined and dined on them as well.

In a study published Tuesday in the journal Frontiers in Ecological Archaeology, archaeologists discovered the charred remnants of a seafood feast dating back 90,000 years in a seaside cave south of Portugal’s capital Lisbon. Scientists had previously found other evidence of Neanderthals in this cave, known as Gruta da Figueira Brava, including a tooth and other tools. From this same cave in 2020, the study authors discovered the first inklings that small animals like crabs were likely on the ancient hominid’s menu. This dietary revelation suggests that Neanderthals weren’t heavy-browed lunkheads scraping by hunting large prey like wooly mammoths, as is the common portrayal. Our hominid ancestors harvested whatever resources were available to them, preparing them with an astonishing level of sophistication on par with modern humans.

“This study [and others like it] are really revolutionizing our view of what Neanderthals were able to get out of their environment,” Jacqueline Meier, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of North Florida, who was not involved in the study, tells Inverse. “People in the past thought [Neanderthals] were the dullards of the ancient world. But a lot of work recently, especially with zooarchaeologists, like the members of [this study], is revealing fascinating new insights about how Neanderthals exploited their environment.”

What’s new — What we’ve known about the Neanderthal diet is from archaeological evidence and isotopic analysis of their bones, a technique which measures the relative abundance of differently weighted variants of chemicals like nitrogen and carbon, says Meier. The evidence has so far positioned the ancient humans as big game hunters specializing in large plant-eaters such as the wooly mammoth and wooly rhinoceros and some theories have suggested these early humans died out because of their carnivorous diet.

“This study [and others like it] are really revolutionizing our view of what Neanderthals were able to get out of their environment.”

Gruta da Figueira Brava — a plan of the cave’s interior (B) and the stratigraphic profile of Area F (D).

Mariana Nabais, João Zilhão, The American Association for the Advancement Studies

However, growing evidence paints another picture of Neanderthals as small prey hunters enjoying a more omnivorous diet that included seeds, mushrooms, and even moss. In some regions of the world, they cooked up probably what was their version of a pancake, minus the maple syrup. These discoveries have lent to a revised perception of our ancient human relatives as much cognitively nimble and adaptive as modern humans.

“The trend that is emerging is that [Neanderthals] were quite behaviorally flexible, much more than we expected them to be,” Eugene Morin, an anthropologist at Trent University in Canada, who was not involved in the research, tells Inverse. “We see them, for instance, hunting rabbits and hares. In [other] regions, they’re exploiting shellfish [and] making complex tools.”

“The notion of the Neanderthals as top-level carnivores living off large herbivores of the steppe-tundra is extremely biased,” Mariana Nabais, an archaeologist at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution in Spain who led the study, said in a statement. “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 Paleolithic, before, during and after the Neanderthals.”

What they did it — Nabais’ team collected sediments from Gruta da Figueira Brava and analyzed them at a nearby field lab they erected. Instantly, they could see remains of claws belonging to the brown crab, commonly found in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. In total, there were 635 bits of crab shell along with a variety of small crustaceans like barnacles and spiky sea urchins.

Now, these weren’t the cute tiny crabs you might see scuttling on a beach. Judging from the size of the carapace (the shell on the back of the crab) relative to the beady-eyed animals’ pincers, the crabs were estimated to be a bit larger than average and yielding around a whopping seven ounces of meat. The Neanderthals living in Gruta da Figueira Brava might have collected the crabs from the rocky coast or water using their hands or long poles.

Distinctions between crab species based on claw morphology. J and K represent the brown crab.

Marianna Nabais

There were no signs of bite marks from other animals or breakage that would point to something like a bird dropping an unlucky crustacean on a bed of sharp rocks. The only damage Nabais and her team found appeared to be the result of cooking or other preparation. Around eight percent of the shells were charred and blackened from being roasted at temperatures as low as 572 degrees Fahrenheit and as high as 932 degrees Fahrenheit, the researchers estimate. Other shells were cracked open as if by a Neanderthal version of a crab mallet.

“At the end of the Last Interglacial [over 120,000 years ago], Neanderthals regularly harvested large brown crabs,” said Nabais in the same statement. “They were taking them in pools of the nearby rocky coast, targeting adult animals with an average carapace width of 16 [centimeters]. The animals were brought whole to the cave, where they were roasted on coals and then eaten.”

What’s next — It’s difficult to say why the Neanderthals of Gruta da Figueira Brava chose to harvest brown crabs in particular above all other marine resources available such as whether it was out of a cultural significance. But indulging in crustaceans would have given these ancient humans added nutritional benefits. This inference wasn’t directly investigated by the archaeologists in this paper (since this was an observational study) but is based on preliminary findings from another study they’re working on that’s now been submitted for publication.

Morin believes the findings could inform us about how Neanderthal behaviors changed going from inland to the coast and what the group dynamics might have looked like in these particular hunter-gatherer communities.

“Inland, what we see is more multi-terrestrial prey and we think [Neanderthals] are changing their behavior when they’re at the coast,” says Morin. “The fact that there’s a lot of shellfish being eaten at this site might indicate that we have a population that contains a lot of children or women who are nursing children because they definitely could be the group that is likely to focus on these kinds of resources [while] prime males… are trying to catch the big animals.”

These findings might set up a reconsideration or examination of remains found at Neanderthal archaeological sites that may have been overlooked, written off as nothing more than natural accumulation, says Meier.

“I wonder how many sites are out there where remains of these ecologically important animals or dietarily important animals are in a box somewhere and have been overlooked in the past as just a background signature of a local coastal community,” says Meier. “If we take a closer look, the story might be quite different.”

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