Neanderthals Enjoyed Surf and Turf Meals

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Recently at Discovery News I told you about Neanderthal-made shell jewelry that suggests these hominids were as smart and creative as modern humans were at the time the jewelry was made, 50,000 years ago.

University of Bristol archaeologist Joao Zilhao, who led the project, told me about some other interesting discoveries he and his team made about Neanderthals. One concerns how they harvested shellfish for consumption.

"The Neanderthals harvested live mollusks on the rocks for eating, transported them to their living sites in wet algae bundles, and discarded their shells after eating the flesh," he said. "They did this with limpets, mussels and topshells."

Note that the Neanderthals didn't wear their dinner discards, just as we don't today. (Or usually don't. Maybe someone out there has made a necklace out of last night's oyster or lobster remains.)

The Neanderthals instead chose different shells based on beauty for use as jewelry/body ornamentation. These species included Pecten (pilgrim shell), Glycymeris (dog cockle) and Acanthocardia (Moroccan cockle). The shells accumulate on sea bottoms "where wave action throws them onto the beaches where Neanderthals could harvest them, must as you or I would when holidaying in the summer," Zilhao said.

(Credit: Joao Zilhao)

 

Note the pigment residue highlighted on this now-broken Neanderthal-painted shell. The pigment residue is magnified in the second pic.

Horse bones that were probably used as painting tools, such as paint stirrers. The tips are dotted with pigment, shown in the second image and then up close in the third photo.

Imagine this shell pendant hanging from a fashionable Neanderthal's neck. It was naturally red on one side and painted bright orange on the other. I wonder what symbolic meaning might have been conveyed by the chosen colors and shapes?

Getting back to the shellfish as food and not art, for consumers even today, shellfish pose challenges. As Zilhao and his team point out, "They rot very rapidly and must be eaten or cooked extremely fresh."

By packaging the harvested shellfish in water-soaked algae, the Neanderthals helped to preserve the shellfish from the point of collection to the place where they ate them, such as Aviones Cave in Spain. This cave is right near the entrance of Cartagena harbor, so it provided "rooms" with a view as well as water resources. Algae remains were found among the shells within the cave.

We always hear about the big game hunting talents of Neanderthals, but this new research suggests that at least some groups enjoyed surf and turf meals. Or surf one night and maybe turf the next.

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