Neanderthals collected seashells at the seashore. They may also have swum underwater to recover live clams and then form sharp tools and scrapers, according to a new study.
"Our findings extend our knowledge of the range of capabilities Neanderthals had," said Sylvain Soriano, an archaeologist at the University of Paris Nanterre and author of the article. "Now we can say that they were able to dive in shallow water."
The conclusion is based on more than 170 handmade shell tools found in an Italian cave. The finding provides information on how Neanderthals, who hunted deer with flint-pointed spears and used fire to produce birch tar, took advantage of their aquatic resources to meet their needs and fill their utility belts. The document was published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.
The researchers discovered Grotta dei Moscerini on the western coast of Italy at the base of a limestone cliff in the late 1930s. During an excavation in 1949, archaeologists who used mesh sieves dug up dozens of seashells. The Neanderthal inhabitants of the cave had sharpened or modified many of the shells into thin cutting tools, similar to how they had turned the flint into stone blades. Some of the shell tools date from about 100,000 years ago.
Paola Villa, an archaeologist at the Museum of Natural History at the University of Colorado and lead author of the article, studied the tools of the museum's collection site. The almost 170 shell tools come from a kind of smooth clam that still lives in the area, Callista chione.
She took the tools to Carlo Smriglio, a projectile specialist at the Roma Tre University, who analyzed them under a microscope. Dr. Smriglio found differences in the shells that helped the team distinguish between the dead clam shells that the Neanderthals had collected from the beach and the live ones they had grabbed from the sea floor.
"The live animals that lived in the sea had a bright shell," said Dr. Villa. "Those who are thrown by storms or dragged by a stream to the beach, because they sat in the sun and in the sand, their outer shells are opaque and not so bright."
Another difference was that the shells that had been resting on the beach before being taken to the cave were worn and worn outside, while the other shells were smoother. The team discovered that almost a quarter of the shells came from live clams recovered from the water.
Neanderthals, Dr. Villa said, most likely knew that these clams were buried in the sandy seabed and that mollusks could be seen by siphons protruding from the sand. In some cases, Neanderthals may have dived up to 6 to 13 feet deep.
"Essentially, what they had to do was hold their breath and put their heads under the water to see where to get the sand with their hands to get the clam," said Dr. Villa.
The findings support previous research that suggests Neanderthals waded or swam through the water, and even developed Swimmer's ear
The team also reported finding pumice stones in the cave.
"There was never any record of Neanderthals picking pumice," said Dr. Villa. The team does not know what the Neanderthals used the pumice stones, but one possibility is that they collected the rocks as we do today, to exfoliate the dead skin of our feet and bodies.
"This study is further evidence of the rich complexity of behavior of this human species, and its great capacity to adapt to the environment and exploit the available resources at best."
Dr. Villa said her findings, along with many other recent discoveries, are helping to reshape the modern image of our former relatives.
"Stop using the word" Neanderthal "to refer to a cretin or idiot," said Dr. Villa. "It's not true anymore."