September 23, 2008

Neanderthals' trips to the sea in search of food

Another data point for Neanderthal behavioral complexity; this paper shows that Neanderthals made forays to the sea to exploit marine food resources. UPDATE: John Hawks comments.

PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.0805474105

Neanderthal exploitation of marine mammals in Gibraltar

C. B. Stringer et al.


Two coastal sites in Gibraltar, Vanguard and Gorham's Caves, located at Governor's Beach on the eastern side of the Rock, are especially relevant to the study of Neanderthals. Vanguard Cave provides evidence of marine food supply (mollusks, seal, dolphin, and fish). Further evidence of marine mammal remains was also found in the occupation levels at Gorham's Cave associated with Upper Paleolithic and Mousterian technologies [Finlayson C, et al. (2006) Nature 443:850–853]. The stratigraphic sequence of Gibraltar sites allows us to compare behaviors and subsistence strategies of Neanderthals during the Middle Paleolithic observed at Vanguard and Gorham's Cave sites. This evidence suggests that such use of marine resources was not a rare behavior and represents focused visits to the coast and estuaries.



Maju said...

No. And it's pretty logical: no matter that we were different, we were also extremely close.

If you are looking for behavioural differences, the archaeological record can only tell us that much. But, anyhow, what about bone-made tools/weapons? I don't think Neanders ever used bone that way. They also seem to have exploited smaller areas. Add all that we just don't know: our ancestors may have only a slight advantage, and certainly it was not strength, but whichever it was, it was decisive in the long run.

Anne Gilbert said...


IMO, the most likely explanation for the fact that there are no longer any Neandertals around is, that there never were very many Neandertals in the first place. I say this because every time somebody comes up with an idea that supposedly explains their extinction or points to behavioral differences, something like this "marine mammals" find comes up and challenges the notion, one way or another.
Anne G

Maju said...

I don't really know how many Neanderthals were around but, if they experienced an expansion (into West and Central Asia - also found in North Africa, btw) c. 60,000 years ago, it must mean that at one time they were a growing population: a relatively succesful species, able apparently to outcompete us (H. sapiens remains are older than Neanderthal ones in West Asia and North Africa).

At some time they appear to have dominated a good share of the old world and it doesn't seem either that the West Eurasian AMHs that eventually replaced them could have been particularly numerous from the beginning (only a handful of genetic lineages are present, their circumstances must have been once pretty marginal). Something may have changed in the way the West Eurasian H. sapiens approached the competition with Neanderthals. I think they were just able to exploit larger territories (because of greater mobiliy) and more marginal resources (greater flexibility), an advantage that is not reflected in their tools or faunal remains, but that can be traced up to a point in the achaeological record. Gradually that advantage became decisive, drawing Neanderthals to an unsustainable situation of too small populations in too small and less productive areas.

Surely this long-term conflict (spanning through milennia, even if with some faster epysodes) implied also tribal wars. We have no direct evidence of them but I'm sure that Neanderthals did not go out without a good fight. I wonder if some technological advances such as spear throwers might have given military (as well as hunting) advantage to longer limbed H. sapiens, probably better at hit-and-run tactics (while clearly weaker at close range combat).

terryt said...

"Gradually that advantage became decisive, drawing Neanderthals to an unsustainable situation of too small populations in too small and less productive areas". And "I'm sure that Neanderthals did not go out without a good fight".

A process to be repeated in more modern times with Australian Aborigines and Native Americans.

Crimson Guard said...

They dont know why any more than they know why the Dinosaurs went extinct. At the end of the day its all guess work.

pconroy said...

I predicted that Neanderthals were eating fish and marine mammals over 3 years ago - so I'm glad that this idea has at last been proven true: