ADHD neanderthals

A genomic analysis in samples of Neanderthals and modern humans shows a decrease in ADHD-associated genetic variants

A genomic analysis in samples of Neanderthals and modern humans shows a decrease in ADHD-associated genetic variants

According to the study, some features like hyperactivity or impulsiveness could have been favourably selected for survival in ancestral environments dominated by a nomad lifestyle

The frequency of genetic variants associated with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has decreased progressively in the evolutionary human lineage from the Palaeolithic to nowadays, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The new genomic analysis compares several ADHD-associated genetic variants described in current European populations to assess its evolution in samples of the human species (Homo sapiens), modern and ancient, and in samples of Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis). According to the conclusions, the low tendency observed in European populations could not be explained for the genetic mix with African populations or the introgression of Neanderthal genomic segments in our genome.

The new genomic study isled by Professor Bru Cormand, from the Faculty of Biology and the Institute of Biomedicine of the University of Barcelona (IBUB), the Research Institute Sant Joan de Déu (IRSJD) and the Rare Diseases Networking Biomedical Research Centre (CIBERER), and the researcher Oscar Lao, from the Centro Nacional de Análisis Genómico (CNAG), part of the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG). The study, whose first author is the CNAG-CRG researcher Paula Esteller -current doctoral student at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (IBE, CSIC-UPF)- counts on the participation of research groups of the Aarhus University (Denmark) and the Upstate Medical University of New York (United States).

TDAH neandertales
The experts Paula Esteller, Bru Cormand and Òscar Lao

ADHD: an adaptive value in the evolutionary lineage of humans?

 The attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is an alteration of the neurodevelopment which can have a large impact on the life of the affected people. Featured by hyperactivity, impulsiveness and attention deficit, it is very common in modern populations -with a prevalence of 5% in children and adolescents- and can last up to adulthood.

From an evolutionary perspective, one would expect that anything detrimental would disappear among the population. In order to explain this phenomenon, several natural hypotheses have been presented -specially focused on the context of transition from the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic-, such as the known Mismatch Theory.

“According to this theory, cultural and technological changes that occurred over the last thousands of years would have allowed us to modify our environment in order to adopt it to our physiological needs in the short term. However, in the long term, these changes would have promoted an imbalance regarding the environment in which our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved”, note the authors.

Therefore, several traits like hyperactivity and impulsiveness -typical in people with ADHD- could have been selectively favoured in ancestral environments dominated by a nomad lifestyle. However, the same features would have become non-adaptive in other environments related to more recent times (mostly sedentary).

Why is it one of the most common disorders in children and adolescents?

 The new study, based on the study on 20,000 ADHD affected people and 35,000 controls, reveals the genetic variants and alleles associated with ADHD tend to be found in genes which are intolerant to mutations that cause loss of function, which shows the existence of a selective pressure on this phenotype.

According to the authors, the high prevalence of ADHD nowadays could be a result from a favourable selection that took place in the past. Although being an unfavourable phenotype in the new environmental context, the prevalence would still be high because much time has not passed for it to disappear. However, due to the absence of available genomic data for ADHD, none of the hypothesis has been empirically contrasted so far.

“Therefore, the analysis we conducted guarantee the presence of selective pressures that would have been acting for many years against the ADHD-associated variants. These results are compatible with the mismatch theory but they suggest negative selective pressures to have started before the transition between the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic, about 10,000 years ago”, say the authors.

Reference Article:

 Esteller-Cucala, P.; Maceda, I.; Børglum, A.D.; Demontis, D.; Faraone, S.V.; Cormand, B.; Lao, O. “Genomic analysis of the natural history of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder using Neanderthal and ancient Homo sapiens samples”. Scientific Reports, May,  2020. Doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-65322-4


Press release from the University of Barcelona

Cueva de los Toriles

Cueva de los Toriles site is dated to the Early-Middle Pleistocene by the presence of a primitive badger

Cueva de los Toriles site is dated to the Early-Middle Pleistocene by the presence of a primitive badger

The CENIEH has led a paper on this archaeological site located in Castilla-La Mancha (Spain), which makes clear its importance as one of the most significant enclaves with fossil remains from these chronologies in the southern Iberian plateau

Badger teeth. Credits: Daniel García Martínez

A team of researchers headed by Daniel Garcia Martínez, a paleoanthropologist at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), has just published a paper in the Journal of Iberian Geology on some remains of a primitive badger found in the Cueva de los Toriles (Carrizosa, Ciudad Real, Spain) which have allowed it to be dated to the Early-Middle Pleistocene: this archaeological site could potentially be a singular enclave with fossil remains from the southern Iberian plateau in these chronologies.

Even though there is currently no exact dating for the sedimentary deposits at this site in La Mancha, the finding of two lower molars of a mustelid, attributed to the species Meles cf. thorali, a primitive badger, has enabled their potential age to be checked, because this extinct mustelid is principally found in sites around 1 million years old.

As Alberto Valenciano, a specialist in mustelids from the University of Cape Town, explains: “In accordance with the presence of this badger species in the cave, we can tentatively assume an age ranging from the Late Pliocene up to the Middle Pleistocene”. In addition, as García Martínez comments: “These chronologies would be consistent with certain lithic tools recovered from the site”.

A natural corridor

Studying the southern Iberian plateau is primordial to revealing the population and movement of fauna in the Iberian Peninsula, because it functions as a natural corridor connecting the Central System and Iberian Range to the north with the Baetic Ranges to the south.

Cueva de los Toriles
Cueva de los Toriles site. Credits: Danie García Martínez

In the southern Iberian plateau, there are far fewer Pleistocene sites than in the northern plateau, where sites of world importance such as Atapuerca (Burgos) are found, because the eminently agricultural use of the land has caused many open-air sites to be altered or vanish.

“And while it is true that certain sites well-known to archaeologists are found in Ciudad Real, such as Albalá or El Sotillo, these are rich in lithic remains but poor in fossils, something which does not happen at Cueva de los Toriles where remains of macromammals have also been found, which could help to fill the gaps in our knowledge about this region”, states García Martínez.

“This cave is also an important site because of the enduring human presence stretching back to prehistory which we are seeing in our first investigations. A major milestone in the archaeology of Castilla-La Mancha and the southern sub-plateau", says Pedro R. Moya Maleno, from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid.


Full bibliographic information


García-Martínez, D., Valenciano, A., Suárez-Bilbao, A., Palancar, C. A., Megía García, I., Moreno, D., Campaña, I., & Moya-Maleno, P. R. (2020). New remains of a primitive badger from Cueva de los Toriles (Carrizosa, Castilla-La Mancha, Iberian Peninsula) suggest a new quaternary locality in the southern Iberian plateau. Journal of Iberian Geology (0). doi: 10.1007/s41513-020-00127-y

Press release from CENIEH

italian genetic

Exploring the origins of genetic divergence within the Italian population

Genetic adaptations of early Italian ancestors to environmental changes, such as those that occurred soon after the Last Glacial Maximum, may explain some of the genetic differences between northern and southern Italian populations today, according to a study published in BMC Biology. The research suggests that northern and southern Italian populations may have begun to diverge genetically as early as 19,000-12,000 years ago and constitutes the earliest known evidence of genetic divergence in Italy so far.

A team of researchers at the University of Bologna sequenced the genomes of 38 unrelated participants from different regions in Italy, each the third generation of their family native to each region. The genomes were selected as representative of known genetic differences across the Italian population and over 17 million distinct genetic variants were found between individuals. The authors compared these variations with existing genetic data from 35 populations across Europe and the Mediterranean and with variants previously observed in 559 ancient human remains, dating from the Upper Palaeolithic (approx. 40,000 years ago) to the Bronze Age (approx. 4,000 years ago).

Prof. Marco Sazzini, lead author of the study said: “When comparing sequences between modern and ancient genome samples, we found early genetic divergence between the ancestors of northern and southern Italian groups dating back to the Late Glacial, around 19,000-12,000 years ago. Migrations during the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, thousands of years later, then further differentiated their gene pools. Divergence between these ancestral populations may have occurred as a result of temperature rises and subsequent shrinking of glaciers across Northern Italy during this time, allowing ancestors who survived the glaciation period to move north, separating from groups who remained in the south.”

Further analyses also revealed signatures ascribable to specific biological adaptations in northern and southern Italian genomes suggestive of habitation in differing climates. The genetic history of northern Italians showed changes in the genes responsible for regulating insulin, body-heat production and fat metabolism, whilst southern Italians showed adaptations in genes regulating the production of melanin and responses to pathogens.

Prof. Sazzini said: “Our findings suggest that the ancestors of northern Italians adapted to lower environmental temperatures and the related high-calorie diets by optimising their energy metabolism. This adaptation may play a role in the lower prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes recorded in Northern Italy today. Conversely, southern Italian ancestors adapted to a warmer climate with higher UV levels by increasing melanin production, which may explain the lower incidence rates of skin cancers recorded across Southern regions. The genomes of southern Italians also showed changes in the genes encoding mucins, which play a role in protection against pathogens, and genetic variants linked to a longer lifespan. Further research in this area may help us understand how the observed genetic differences can impact population health or predisposition to a number of diseases.”

The authors caution that although correlations may be drawn between evolutionary adaptations and current disease prevalence among populations, they are unable to prove causation, or rule out the possibility that more recent gene flow from populations exposed to diverse environmental conditions outside of Italy may have also contributed to the different genetic signatures seen between northern and southern Italians today.


italian genetic
Adaptive events evolved by ancestors of N_ITA/S_ITA clusters and their health implications for present-day Italians. The putative selective pressures having plausibly prompted local adaptations are displayed on the left, while biological processes subjected to natural selection are reported on the map along with their impact on present-day disease susceptibility. Distribution of biological adaptations having the potential to modulate the longevity phenotype (e.g., involving the mTOR signaling, arachidonic acid metabolism, and FoxO signaling pathways) in the overall Italian population, but especially in people from Southern Italy, is represented by the arrow on the right. Putative selective pressures, biological processes, and distribution of adaptations potentially modulating longevity are color-coded as follows: N_ITA, blue; S_ITA, red. Picture from the paper, credits Sazzini, M., Abondio, P., Sarno, S. et al., CC BY 4.0

Sazzini, M., Abondio, P., Sarno, S. et al. Genomic history of the Italian population recapitulates key evolutionary dynamics of both Continental and Southern Europeans. BMC Biol 18, 51 (2020).


Press release from Springer.

El Provencio

First exhaustive study of the Paleolithic site of El Provencio

First exhaustive study of the Paleolithic site of El Provencio

The CENIEH researcher Davinia Moreno has co-led the publication of a paper on this Paleolithic site in the province of Cuenca, whose age, according to the ESR dating technique, is 830,000 years.
El Provencio
El Provencio site. Credits: Santiago David Domínguez-Solera, ARES arqueología

The researcher Davinia Moreno, a geochronologist at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), is the co-leader of a paper published in the journal Quaternary International about El Provencio, in which the first exhaustive study of this Paleolithic site in the province of Cuenca, situated in the La Mancha plain on the banks of the Záncara River, is conducted.

The geochronological analysis carried out at the CENIEH, applying the techniques of Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) and Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) has provided the first numerical datings in this region. The most recent and most ancient levels of the archaeological sequence were dated, yielding ages of 41,000 (OSL) and 830,000 years (ESR).

The rich archaeo-paleontological record of El Provencio exhibits stone tools worked in flint and quartzite catalogued as Modes 1, 2 and 3 (Oldowan, Acheulean and Mousterian), as well as bone remains from species characteristic of the Pleistocene such as horses, bisons and mammoths.

This study suggests that, over the last 800,000 years, groups of hunter-gatherers occupied this territory, undertaking a variety of activities recurrently and continuously, and it undercuts theories of a discontinuity in the center of the Iberian Peninsula and those contending that population was more intensive on the coast than in the interior.

Research and outreach project

The research work at El Provencio is part of a much larger project that got under way in 2013 and which, at the moment, covers dozens of locations throughout the province of Cuenca. This project, directed by Santiago David Domínguez-Solera, lead author of this study, through the company ARES (Arqueología y Patrimonio Cultural) is being conducted in close collaboration with the Junta de Comunidades de Castilla-La Mancha, the Diputación de Cuenca and the Ayuntamiento de El Provencio.

From the outset, this project has placed special importance on outreach for its scientific results: a classroom for schoolchildren and visitors has been set up, and documentary reportage, exhibitions and university courses (Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo) in the municipality of El Provencio itself have been produced.

"As of several years ago, we have been opening up a window onto the prehistoric past, aligning it with the three natural zones making up what is today the province of Cuenca; La Mancha, Sierra and Alcarria, each with its particular features. This window offers a glimpse of an area little studied or overlooked up to now, and therefore unknown to science”, declares Domínguez-Solera.

Press release from CENIEH

Environmental and climatic changes influenced the origin of the genus 'Homo'

Environmental and climate changes influenced the origin of the genus 'Homo'

CENIEH participates in a study on Mille-Logya, a new site located in the emblematic Afar region (Ethiopia), which reinforces the relationship between the origin of the Homo genus and the climatic and environmental changes that took place on the African continent between 2.5 and 3 million years ago
climatic changes Homo Mille-Logya
Hominin remains from the MLP area. Credits: Z. Alemseged et al

Several hypothesis suggest a link between the origin of the genus Homo and the climatic and environmental changes that took place in Africa between 2.5 and 3 million years ago. The geological and paleontological analyses of a new site, Mille-Logya, located in the emblematic region of Afar (Ethiopia) where the species Australopithecus afarensis was found, reinforces with new data these hypothesis.

A new study, published in Nature communication by an international team led by Zeresenay Alemseged from the University of Chicago, and with the participation of the geochronologist from the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), Mark Jan Sier, reports the finding of four hominin remains (two ulnae fragments, a calvarium fragment and an upper second molar) together with a large sample of faunal remains that include hypopothamus, bovids, giraffes, crocodiles, hyenas and horses.

The fossil samples come from three different areas, Gafura, Seraitu and Uraitele dated from 2.4 to 2.9 million years. “This site represents a unique opportunity to study fossils from an age range that normally is missing in the Afar area”, says Mark Jan Sier, from the Geochronology and Geology Programme of CENIEH and who contributed to the dating of the site with the paleomagnetic analysis.

The comparison of the fauna from the three different areas within Mille-Logya, as well as with that found in the nearby localities of Hadar and Dikika, where famous Australopithecus afarensis samples were found, suggests an important faunal and paleoenvironmental change during this period in this region of Africa.

The faunal and paleoenvironmental reconstructions suggest that the earliest members of Homo were associated with more open environments than Australopithecus was. The in situ faunal change at Mille-logya may be linked to environmental and climatic factors that may have caused Homo to emerge in from Australopithecus or to migrate to the region as part of a fauna adapted to more open habitats.

Full bibliographic information

Alemseged, Z., Wynn, J. G., Geraads, D., Reed, D., Barr, W. A., Bobe, R., McPherron, S. P., Deino, A., Alene, M., Sier, M. J., Roman, D., & Mohan, J. (2020). Fossils from Mille-Logya, Afar, Ethiopia, elucidate the link between Pliocene environmental changes and Homo origins. Nature Communications, 11, 2480. doi: 10.1038/s41467-020-16060-8.
Press release from CENIEH

Dentition enables the sex of the youngest individuals from Sima de los Huesos to be estimated

Dentition enables the sex of the youngest individuals from Sima de los Huesos to be estimated

In a new study of sexual dimorphism carried out by the Dental Anthropology Group at the CENIEH, where a total of 32 dental pieces were analyzed, it has been possible to determine the sex of the immature specimens found at this site situated in the Sierra de Atapuerca

dentition Sima de los Huesos sexual dimorphism
Teeth from Sima de los Huesos. Credits: Cecilia García Campos

Today the Journal of Human Evolution publishes a study on sexual dimorphism led by Cecilia García Campos, a researcher in the Dental Anthropology Group at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) in which, thanks to the analysis of 32 dental pieces using micro-computed tomography, it has been possible to rise to the challenge posed, by estimating the sex of at least 15 individuals from the population of Sima de los Huesos site in the Sierra de Atapuerca (Burgos, Spain).

The extraordinary fossil collection recovered at this Middle Pleistocene site offers a unique opportunity for conducting demographic studies of the populations inhabiting Europe during that period. Nevertheless, many of the individuals in the Sima de los Huesos population are sub-adults or young adults who had not completed their development, so that their skeletons do not present clear secondary sexual traits that could help to determine their sex.

By contrast, these traits can be detected in their dentition, as the lead author of this work explains: “The teeth form early, allowing us to suggest a sex assignment even in those individuals who have not come through adolescence, so that dental anthropology turns out to be a very useful tool when endeavoring to study past populations with demographic structures similar to that in Sima de los Huesos”.

Dental histology

By studying the dentition of modern populations, in 2018 the CENIEH Dental Anthropology Group managed to identify a characteristic histological pattern to distinguish the canines belonging to male individuals from those of female individuals, and which offers an efficacy of 92.3%.

The application of this pattern at Sima de los Huesos has not only enabled the sex estimations proposed in earlier studies to be ratified, but also to suggest a sex assignment for the youngest individuals in the sample, something which had not been possible in previous work. All of this, therefore, has made clear the usefulness of dental histology for the assessment of sexual dimorphism and estimating sex in modern and past human populations.

“Specifically, this tool is especially useful in paleoanthropological settings, in which the other bone structures usually appear fragmented or are absent, and above all in those where sub-adults are better represented in their demographic structures”, comments García Campos.


Full bibliographic information


García-Campos, C., Modesto-Mata, M., Martinón-Torres, M., Martínez de Pinillos, M., Martín-Francés, L., Arsuaga, J.L., Bermúdez de Castro, J. M. 2020. Sexual dimorphism of the enamel and dentine dimensions of the permanent canines of the Middle Pleistocene hominins from Sima de los Huesos (Burgos, Spain). Journal of Human Evolution


Press release from CENIEH

The African affinities of the southwestern European Acheulean

A study highlights the African affinities of the southwestern European Acheulean

The CENIEH is the co-leader of a paper published in the Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology which presents a synthesis of human occupation in the Iberian Peninsula Atlantic margin during the Early and Middle Paleolithic
African Acheulean
Porto Maior site (As Neves, Pontevedra). Credits: Eduardo Méndez

The Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) is the co-leader of a study published this week in the Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology which presents a synthesis of human occupation in the Iberian Peninsula Atlantic margin during the Early and Middle Paleolithic, and highlights the African affinities of Acheulean industry in southwestern Europe.

Over recent years, a team whose members include the CENIEH archaeologist Manuel Santonja, and Eduardo Méndez, leading author of the study trained at the CENIEH, has excavated and interpreted important archaeological sites on the banks of the Miño River, on both the Portuguese and Spanish shores, with singular Acheulean and Mousterian assemblages.

The chronology attributed to these sites, the second half of the Middle Pleistocene and the first part of the Late Pleistocene (between 50,000 and 400,000 years ago), and the characteristics of the knapped utensils recovered allow close parallels to be drawn with other regions of the Iberian Peninsula, and rule out any kind of time mismatch in these stages in the northwestern area, as had been proposed earlier.

Some of the sites excavated, and in particular the Acheulean one at Porto Maior (As Neves, Pontevedra), have produced unusual assemblages of large utensils, handaxes and cleavers, which make a decisive contribution to underlining the African affinities of that industry in the Iberian Peninsula and southwestern Europe, in contrast to Acheulean assemblages identified in the northernmost areas of the continent, where the distinctive technological features of the African Acheulean arrive less crisply defined.


Full bibliographic information

Méndez-Quintas, E., Santonja, M., Arnold, L. J., Cunha-Ribeiro, J. P., Xavier da Silva, P., Demuro, M., Duval, M., Gomes, A., Meireles, J., Monteiro-Rodrigues, S., & Pérez-González, A. (2020). The Acheulean technocomplex of the Iberian Atlantic margin as an example of technology continuity through the Middle Pleistocene. Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology (0). doi: 10.1007/s41982-020-00057-2.
Press release from CENIEH

The landscape in the Pre-Pyrenees inhabited by Neanderthals

A CENIEH scientist analyzes the landscape in the Pre-Pyrenees inhabited by Neanderthals

Reconstructing how the landscape in this zone evolved is key to understanding the Neanderthal occupation patterns in this territory, which served as a nexus between the rest of Europe and the Iberian Peninsula, by connecting the highlands of the Pyrenees with the Ebro Basin
Pre-Pyrenees Neanderthals
Yacimiento de la Roca dels Bous. Credits: Alfonso Benito Calvo

The researcher Alfonso Benito Calvo, head of the Geomorphology and Formation Processes line of research at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH, is the lead author of a paper just published in the journal Quaternary Research, which analyzes the formation of the site of Roca dels Bous (Lleida, Spain), which was inhabited by Neanderthals, in relation to the evolution that took place of this landscape in the Pre-Pyrenees over the last 60,000 years.

In this paper, the processes that intervened during the Neanderthal occupation of this Mousterian site, lying in the gorge of the Segre River (Sant Llorenç de Montgai), were investigated using 3D geomorphological techniques based upon drones, as well as stratigraphic, statistical and Luminescence dating (OSL) techniques.

“The landscape we see today is very different from that inhabited by the Neanderthals. Roca dels Bous was not a vantage point overlooking the valley, as on the contrary, the data indicate that it lay next to the valley bottom, and the Neanderthals had the resources offered by the Segre River floodplain, which was wider than it is now, to hand”, explains Benito Calvo.

Reconstructing how the landscape in this zone evolved is key to understanding the Neanderthal occupation patterns in this territory, which served as a nexus between the rest of Europe and the Iberian Peninsula, by connecting the highlands of the Pyrenees with the Ebro Basin.

Full bibliographic information

Benito-Calvo, A., Arnold, L.J., Mora, R., Martínez-Moreno, J., Demuro, M., 2020. Reconstructing Mousterian landscapes in the southeastern Pyrenees (Roca dels Bous site, Pre-Pyrenees ranges, Spain). Quaternary Research 1–20.
Press release from CENIEH

Neanderthals: pioneers in the use of marine resources

Neanderthals ate mussels, fish, and seals too

International research team with participation from University of Göttingen find it wasn't just Homo sapiens who sourced food from the sea -- impact on cognitive abilities suspected

Neanderthals marine
View on the Figueira Brava cave with its three entrances. Credits: João Zilhão

Over 80,000 years ago, Neanderthals were already feeding themselves regularly on mussels, fish and other marine life. The first robust evidence of this has been found by an international research team with the participation of the University of Göttingen during an excavation in the cave of Figueira Brava in Portugal. Dr Dirk Hoffmann at the Göttingen Isotope Geology Department dated flowstone layers - calcite deposits that form like stalagmites from dripping water - using the uranium-thorium method, and was thus able to determine the age of the excavation layers to between 86,000 and 106,000 years. This means that the layers date from the period in which the Neanderthals settled in Europe. The use of the sea as a source of food at that time has so far only been attributed to anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) in Africa. The results of the study were published in the journal Science.

Cracked-open and burnt fragments of pincers of the edible crab (cancer pagurus). Credits: João Zilhão

The cave of Figueira Brava is located 30 kilometres south of Lisbon on the slopes of the Serra da Arrábida. Today it is located directly on the waterfront, but at that time it was up to two kilometres from the coast. The research team, coordinated by the first author of the study, Professor João Zilhão from the University of Barcelona, found that the Neanderthals living there were able to routinely harvest mussels and fish, and to hunt seals. Their diet included mussels, crustaceans and fish as well as waterfowl and marine mammals such as dolphins and seals. Food from the sea is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and other fatty acids that promote the development of brain tissue.

Until now, it has always been suspected that this consumption increased the cognitive abilities of the human populations in Africa. "Among other influences, this could explain the early appearance of a culture of modern people that used symbolic artefacts, such as body painting with ochre, the use of ornaments or the decoration of containers made of ostrich eggs with geometric motifs," explains Hoffmann. "Such behaviour reflects human's capacity for abstract thought and communication through symbols, which also contributed to the emergence of more organised and complex societies of modern humans".

Neanderthals marine
Horizontal exposure of a mussel shell bed. Credits: João Zilhão

The recent results of the excavation of Figueira Brava now confirm that if the habitual consumption of marine life played an important role in the development of cognitive abilities, this is as true for Neanderthals as it is for anatomically modern humans. Hoffmann and his co-authors previously found that Neanderthals made cave paintings in three caves on the Iberian Peninsula more than 65,000 years ago and that perforated and painted shells must also be attributed to the Neanderthals.


Original publication: J. Zilhão et al., Last Interglacial Iberian Neandertals as fisher-hunter-gatherers, Science, 10.1126/science.aaz7943




Press release from the University of Göttingen


Science publishes study on Neanderthals as pioneers in marine resource exploitation

Neanderthals marine
Cracked-open and burnt fragments of Cancer pagurus pincer? Credits: José Paulo Ruas © João Zilhão

The journal Science has published a study led by the ICREA researcher João Zilhão, from the University of Barcelona, which presents the results of the excavation in Cueva de Figueira Brava, Portugal, which was used as shelter by Neanderthal populations about between 86 and 106 thousand years ago. The study reveals fishing and shellfish-gathering contributed significantly to the subsistence economy of the inhabitants of Figueira Brava. The relevance of this discovery lies in the fact that so far, there were not many signs of these practices as common among Neanderthals.

Regarding the consequences of this study, João Zilhão notes that "an influent model on our origins suggests the common consumption of water resources -rich in Omega3 and other fatty acids that favour the development of brain tissues- would have increased the cognitive skills of modern anatomy humans. That is, those humans who, in Africa, were contemporaries of Neanderthals and are usually regarded as the only ancestors of the current Homo sapiens". But the results of the excavation of Figueira Brava state that, if this common consumption of marine resources played an important role in the development of cognitive skills, it did so on the entire humanity, including Neanderthals, and not only the African population that spread later".

Zilhão member of the Prehistoric Studies and Research Seminar (SERP-UB), lists the research study in the line of "proof that accumulated over the last decade to show Neanderthals had a symbolic material culture". Two years ago, in 2018, the journals Science and Science Advances published two studies co-led by João Zilhão which showed that more than 65,000 years ago, Neanderthals made cave paintings in at least three caves in the Iberian Peninsula: La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales (Science). Furthermore, more than 115,000 years ago, they used perforated marine shells and with ocher remains, such as the ones from Cueva de los Aviones (Murcia, Spain), as pendants and shell containers with residues of complex mixes of pigment (Science Advances). These findings, the most recent one being the one in Figueira Brava, "support a view on human evolution in which the known fossil variants, such as Neanderthals' in Europe and its African anatomy contemporaries -more similar to ours-, should be understood as remains from our ancestors, not as different higher-lower species", notes Zilhão.

Pieces of clam Ruditapes decussatus, found in the site. Credits: Mariana Nabais © João Zilhão

A 50% of the diet of the inhabitants in Figueira Brava was built by coastal resources: molluscs (limpet, mussel and clams; crustaceans (brown crab and spider crab); fish (shark, eel, sea bream, mullet); birds (mallard, common scoter, goose, cormorant, gannet, shag, auk, egret, loon), and mammals (dolphin, seal). This was completed with the hunt of deer, goats, horses, aurochs and other small preys such as tortoises. Among the other carbonised plants were olive trees, vines, fig trees and other Mediterranean climate typical species, among which the most abundant was the stone pine -its wood was used as combustible. Pine forests were exploited as fruit tree gardens: mature pines, albeit closed, were taken from the branches and stored in the cave, where the fire could open them so as to take the pines.

The study also provides other results, such as the idea of the concept of Neanderthals as cold and tundra peoples, experts on hunting mammoths, rhinos, buffalos and reindeers, is biased. "Most Neanderthals would have lived in southern regions, specially in Italy and in the Iberian Peninsula, and its lifestyle would have been very similar to those in Figueira Brava", notes Zilhão.

Another important affirmation in the study is the familiarity of humans with the sea and its resources as something older and wider than what was thought. "This could probably help explain how, between 45,000 and 50,000 years ago, humans could cross the Timor Sea to colonize Australia and New Guinea, and then, about 30,000 years ago, the closest islands to the western Pacific", says Zilhão.


Article reference:

J. Zilhão, D. E. Angelucci, M. Araújo Igreja, L. J. Arnold, E. Badal, P. Callapez, J. L. Cardoso, F. d'Errico, J. Daura, M. Demuro, M. Deschamps, C. Dupont, S. Gabriel, D. L. Hoffmann, P. Legoinha, H. Matias, A. M. Monge Soares, M. Nabais, P. Portela, A. Queffelec, F. Rodrigues, P. Souto. "Last Interglacial Iberian Neandertals as fisher-hunter-gatherers", Science, 367, March 27, 2020.


Press release from the University of Barcelona


Neanderthals: Pioneers in the use of marine resources

Neanderthals slurping seashells by the seashore? This scene may startle those accustomed to imagining Homo neanderthalensis as a people of cold climes who hunted large herbivores. Yet an international team including scientists from three laboratories affiliated with the CNRS and partner institutions* have just demonstrated that Neanderthals hunted, fished, and gathered prodigious volumes of seafood and other marine animals: they discovered remains of molluscs, crustaceans, fish, birds, and mammals in a Portuguese cave (Figueira Brava) occupied by Neanderthals between 106,000 and 86,000 BCE. The diversity of marine food resources found there even exceeds that observed at other, much more recent Portuguese sites, dated to 9,000-7,500 BCE. The team's findings, published in Science (27 March 2020), suggest that many Neanderthal groups--living in Mediterranean climates far from the mammoth hunts of the frigid steppes--shared these dietary habitats.


Researchers from Centre de recherche en archéologie, archéosciences, Histoire (CNRS/Université de Rennes), from De la préhistoire à l'actuel : culture, environnement et anthropologie laboratory (CNRS/Université de Bordeaux/Ministère de la Culture) and Travaux de recherches archéologiques sur les cultures, les espaces et les sociétés laboratory (CNRS/Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès/Ministère de la Culture).


Press release from the CNRS

Bone circles made from the remains of mammoths reveal clues about Ice Age

Mysterious bone circles made from the remains of mammoths reveal clues about Ice Age

Mysterious bone circles made from the remains of dozens of mammoths have revealed clues about how ancient communities survived Europe's ice age.

About 70 of these structures are known to exist in Ukraine and the west Russian Plain.

The majority of the bones found at the site investigated, in the Russian Plains, are from mammoths. A total of 51 lower jaws and 64 individual mammoth skulls were used to construct the walls of the 30ft by 30ft structure and scattered across its interior Credits: Alex Pryor

New analysis shows the bones at one site are more than 20,000 years old, making it the oldest such circular structure built by humans discovered in the region. The bones were likely sourced from animal graveyards, and the circle was then hidden by sediment and is now a foot below current surface level.

The majority of the bones found at the site investigated, in the Russian Plains, are from mammoths. A total of 51 lower jaws and 64 individual mammoth skulls were used to construct the walls of the 30ft by 30ft structure and scattered across its interior. Small numbers of reindeer, horse, bear, wolf, red fox and arctic fox bones were also found.

bone cicles mammoths
Credits: Alex Pryor

Archaeologists from the University of Exeter have also found for the first time the remains of charred wood and other soft non-woody plant remains within the circular structure, situated just outside the modern village of Kostenki, about 500km south of Moscow. This shows people were burning wood as well as bones for fuel, and the communities who lived there had learned where to forage for edible plants during the Ice Age. The plants could also have been used for poisons, medicines, string or fabric. More than 50 small charred seeds were also found - the remains of plants growing locally or possibly food remains from cooking and eating.Dr Alexander Pryor, who led the study, said: "Kostenki 11 represents a rare example of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers living on in this harsh environment. What might have brought ancient hunter gatherers to this site? One possibility is that the mammoths and humans could have come to the area on masse because it had a natural spring that would have provided unfrozen liquid water throughout the winter - rare in this period of extreme cold.

"These finds shed new light on the purpose of these mysterious sites. Archaeology is showing us more about how our ancestors survived in this desperately cold and hostile environment at the climax of the last ice age. Most other places at similar latitudes in Europe had been abandoned by this time, but these groups had managed to adapt to find food, shelter and water."

bone cicles mammoths
Credits: Alex Pryor

The last ice age, which swept northern Europe between 75-18,000 years ago, reached its coldest and most severe stage at around 23-18,000 years ago, just as the site at Kostenki 11 was being built. Climate reconstructions indicate at the time summers were short and cool and winters were long and cold, with temperatures around -20 degrees Celsius or colder. Most communities left the region, likely because of lack of prey to hunt and plant resources they depended upon for survival. Eventually the bone circles were also abandoned as the climate continued to get colder and more inhospitable.

Previously archaeologists have assumed that the circular mammoth bone structures were used as dwellings, occupied for many months at a time. The new study suggests this may not always have been the case as the intensity of activity at Kostenki 11 appears less than would be expected from a long term base camp site.

Other finds include more than 300 tiny stone and flint chips just a few millimetres in size, debris left behind the site's inhabitants as they knapped stone nodules into sharp tools with distinctive shapes used for tasks such as butchering animals and scraping hides.

The research, conducted by academics from the University of Exeter, University of Cambridge, Kostenki State Museum Preserve, University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Southampton, is published in the journal Antiquity.


Press release "Mysterious bone circles made from the remains of mammoths reveal clues about Ice Age" from the University of Exeter.