Homo sapiens "Linya" lived in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula 14,000 years ago

Homo sapiens "Linya" lived in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula 14,000 years ago

Researchers from the Centre for the Study of Archaeological Heritage (CEPARQ-UAB) working at the Cova Gran de Santa Linya have discovered the remains of a Homo sapiens female living in the eastern Pre-Pyrennees during the Upper Palaeolithic period, around 14,000 years ago. There is a scarcity of prehistoric remains of modern humans in the Iberian Peninsula. The study of Linya, as she has been named, will allow delving deeper into what is known about them and how hunter-gatherers lived in the northeastern part of the peninsula.

Homo sapiens Linya
Homo sapiens "Linya" lived in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula 14,000 years ago. Photo Credits: CEPARQ-UAB

16/06/2021 The cave known as Cova Gran (Avellanes-Santa Linya, Noguera) preserves countless vestiges within its sediments, which allows researchers to reconstruct over 50,000 years of history of those living in the Pre-Pyrennean region (Lleida province), from the Neanderthals to the the first Homo sapiens as well as the hunther-gatherer-lifestyle to the first farmers and herders.

The research team at the Centre for the Study of Archaeological Heritage of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (CEPARQ-UAB) studying the Cova Gran since 2002 has found remains dating back from 45,000 to 4,000 years ago. But no bones of those living there had ever been discovered. Until last year’s dig campaign, in which the skeletal remains of a human, in partial anatomic connection, were found two meters below ground in a lateral excavation area. A location in which researchers would not have imagined finding these types of remains.

The set ofrecovered remains, which has been made public today, corresponds to a woman who has been given the name of “Linya, the woman from Noguera”. The bones include two femurs, one of them connected to the pelvis, as well as the long bones of the upper extremities (hummerus, radius/cubitus) and lower extremities (tibia and fibula), the metapodia and several phalanges. The skull and axial skeleton (vertebrates and ribs), although present, had little representation.

The dating of the stratum in which the remains were found and the dating of one of the bones have narrowed down the period in which she lived to around 14,350 and 14,100 years ago, which corresponds to the end of the Upper Paleolithic period, which also corresponds to the end of the Pleistocene.

“The remains of Linya open a new door that brings us closer to discovering the circumstances in which she died, but also details about her life and that of those she lived with in the region. And at the same time, she is a key figure in learning about the anatomy and genetic heritage of hunter-gatherer societies at the end of the Pleistocene in the northeastern part of the Iberian Peninsula”, highlights Rafael Mora, Chair Professor at the UAB Department of Prehistory and researcher at the CEPARQ. “The combination of different paleoanthropological, forensic, genomic and archaeological analyses currently underway will provide indicators which will enrich and rectify the current perspective of a discovery we only have preliminary information on thanks to the digs we are conducting”.

The state of conservation of the bones has made it necessary to apply stabilizing and preservation processes in views of future studies. These processes are being conducted now at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES).

Placed in a natural receptacle

The remains were found within what is considered to be a natural receptacle, delimited by various blocks of large dimensions fallen from the rockshelter. Researchers are currently investigating whether the extremities were moved towards the cubicle, while the axial skeleton and skull were protected under these large rocks. What researchers have been able to determine is that the location is where the person was lain once she was dead. According to the position of the femurs, she was lain directly on the ground in a supine position. The first paleoanthropological characterization conducted indicates that the pelvic girdle corresponds to an adult female, possibly of small stature.

The skeleton appeared at the base of an archaeological sequencing of 7 consecutive archaeological levels containing an abundance of lithic tools, faunal and carbon remains, all of which point to the use of the site as a living space. But the bed on which the body was lain did not contain any of those elements. Currently, the research team is looking for possible funerary offerings, which were very common in the burials of Homo sapiens. The sediment of the space marked out by the large blocks is now being sampled to recover micro residue that could indicate that the body was covered with animal skins or plant fibers. This would justify the way the body was lain on the ground, without the need of digging a burial space.

“We are aware of the need to be cautious when affirming that this is an intended burial site”, researcher at the CEPARQ Jorge Martinez-Moreno points out. He goes on to say that, “mortuary practices among hunter-gatherers point to different possibilities, ranging from an intentional burial to a secondary burial, the burial of part of the body, cannibalism, or an accidental death. We will need to evaluate these scenarios depending on the results of what we dig up in the area in which these remains appeared”.

Carbon-14 dating using fragments of the carbon found in the archaeological levels in which the remains appeared indicate that the sediment was formed in less than a millennium, from around 14,400 to 13,500 years ago. The explanation for why this sediment grew so much, and which was accompanied by the detachment of several massive blocks from the cave’s cornice, is being analyzed through the geomorphology and material that make up this part of the mountain’s slope.

A moment of ecological change

The time period in which Linya and her people lived was critical in climatic terms. Some 14,700 years ago, the world’s extremely cold and harsh climate conditions characteristic of the Last Glacial Maximum (approximately 30,000 to 15,000 years ago) suddenly changed and in a period of less than 100 years, transformed into a new climate regime similar to the one existing now. This event, known as the Bölling/Allerød warming, occurring some 14,700 to 12,900 years before the present, and was characterized by a rise in temperatures and rainfall, which produced relevant ecological changes.

Despite the fact that the impact of this event on the Pre-Pyrennees is not greatly known, some indicators recovered at the Cova Gran have allowed researchers to analyze this incident. Carbon dating analysis indicates that the human species living there during the Last Glacial Maximum only used European red pine (Pynus sylvestris) timber for fuel. In the sequence now being dug, in which the remains of Linya were discovered, other new taxon’s in addition to red pine carbon were identified, such the common juniper (Juniperus), cherry trees (Prunus) and buckthorn (Rhamus catharticus/saxatilis), a set of trees and shrubs belonging to milder climates, different to the harshness of the forests of the Last Glacial Maximum.

Very few remains of Homo sapiens in the Iberian Peninsula

The amount of human remains discovered in the Iberian Peninsula and corresponding to the Upper Paleolithic period (20,000 to 12,000 years ago) is scarce. In this sense, the Cova Gran will be key to learning more about their anatomy and where the Hunter-gatherer societies came from at the end of the Pleistocene.

A recent paleogenetic study conducted by the Max Planck Institute on remains recovered from the El Mirón Cave in Santander and the Balma Guilanyà rock shelter in Lleida indicates that the genome sequencing of the “Red Lady of El Mirón”, dating back 20,000 years, reveals close ties to human populations of Western Europe. A situation which changes in the remains found at the Balma Guilanyà rock shelter, dating 1,000 years later than the remains found at the Cova Gran, in which there is a continuation of genetic markers common to European populations, but also new markers which are present in the populations of the Italian Peninsula.

Therefore, in the interval of 20,000 to 13,000 years, the genome of Pyrenean populations registers contacts with populations from the Mediterranean. “Maybe the new climate conditions of the Bölling/Allerød warming facilitated regular contacts between these geographic areas?” researchers wonder. “The human remains at the Cova Gran will be key to evaluating the solidity of this interesting intuition”, they point out.

The CEPARQ team is convinced that the unexpected discovery of Linya will help to modulate the notions now sustained of the anatomy of those Homo sapiens, “of whom we have less precise knowledge than we do of Neanderthals”, researchers state. They also mention the fact that “the causes leading to the appearance of a space created by large blocks will aid us in learning about the behavior and decisions taken by those people regarding a transcendental and common event such as death: what ritual was followed by these people who are part of our collective, but are no longer present? The remains of Linya now pose several challenges, and we hope to solve them in the coming years”, they conclude.

The archaeological importance of the Cova Gran de Santa Linya

The Cova Gran de Santa Linya, discovered in 2002, is a site measuring over 2,500 square meters, considered key to the study of the presence of humans in the northeastern Iberian Peninsula.

It is one of the few sites of the Mediterranean region in which vestiges of a moment of “transition” have been found, such as those of the last Neanderthals (approximately 45,000 years ago) and the appearance of modern humans (some 37,000 to 30,000 years), their survival during the Last Glacial Maximum (20,000 to 15,000 years), and the appearance of the first farmers and herders (7,000 to 4,000 years ago).

The research conducted by the CEPARQ-UAB team at the Cova Gran de Santa Linya includes the financial support of the Spanish Ministry for Science and Innovation, the Archaeology and Palaecology Service of the Ministry for Culture of the Government of Catalonia, the Institute for Lleida Studies (IEI) of the Lleida Provincial Council, the Palarq Foundation, the Leakey Foundation and the City Council of Les Avellanes i Santa Linya.

Press release from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

The shoulders of 'Homo antecessor' and modern humans are similar

The shoulders of 'Homo antecessor' and modern humans are similar

The CENIEH has published a paper in the journal Scientific Reports which concludes that Homo antecessor had a shoulder development analogous to that in H. sapiens, although its growth was faster
Homo antecessor shoulders
Homo antecessor scapulae. Credits: D. Garcia Martínez et al

The shape of our shoulders was already present in the Lower Pleistocene, according to a pioneering study published today in the journal Scientific Reports, carried out by Daniel García Martínez and José María Bermúdez de Castro, paleoanthropologists at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), in collaboration with David Green of Campbell University (USA).

Studying the shoulder (technically known as the "shoulder girdle") furnishes information on points significant for human evolution such as locomotion, body shape, the possibility of climbing with ease or the ability to launch objects like stones or spears with high accuracy.

The authors of this work were able to study for the first time shoulder growth and development in the species Homo antecessor, dated to 850,000 years old, using tools from virtual anthropology and 3D geometric morphometry. The results show that the course of development of the shoulder in this species was very similar to that in H. sapiens, although the growth might have been faster.

Almost one million years ago, our evolution had already attained almost all the biomechanical capacities characterizing the shoulder in modern humans, and it had definitively parted ways from the abilities still then retained by the more archaic species of the human phylogeny, including climbing with great agility.

 To verify the changes undergone by this part of our anatomy, we need a flat bone: the shoulder blade or scapula. But, as the authors of this study state, “The fossil record of our phylogeny contains barely a handful of these highly delicate bones, which has posed enormous difficulties to studying the growth and development of the shoulders during human evolution”.

Two key fossils

By good luck, at level TD6 of the Gran Dolina site, situated in the Sierra de Atapuerca (Burgos), two scapulae have been conserved: one from a child and the other from an individual of age equivalent to a modern adolescent. These fossils were recovered during the excavation in the first decade of the twenty-first century and belonged to the species H. antecessor.

“In an earlier study of these two fossils, it had been noticed that the morphology of the scapulae was similar to our own. But until now, the growth and development model for the shoulders had remained unknown, and this work has now allowed us to check that our shoulder girdle bones have undergone modifications in accordance with different capacities”, says Bermúdez de Castro.

Comparative study

With the scant information available, it was known that the scapulae of Australopithecus species were similar in some ways to those of chimpanzees or gorillas but were different from our own. “We know that the development of our most archaic ancestors was very similar to that of the anthropoid apes, and the morphology of their shoulders shows that they still retained the capacity to climb with ease. We, on the contrary, have lost this ability”, explains García Martínez.

Comparative of scapulae. Credits: D.García Martínez et al

To determine when our anatomical peculiarities arose, in addition to virtual anthropology and 3D geometric morphometry, the researchers used complex statistical methods to study the development of the shoulder girdle in the species H. antecessor, comparing it with other species from the Pliocene and Lower Pleistocene, such as Australopithecus sediba and A. afarensis. A very broad sample from H. sapiens and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) was also used.

“This study shows that although there exist slight morphological differences between the scapulae of H. antecessor and H. sapiens, the former were much more similar to modern humans, to H. erectus and even to Australopithecus than to chimpanzees”, comments García Martínez.

With regard to how the scapulae grew, it was also seen that this was very different from what happens in chimpanzees, and comparable with H. sapiens. “However, it is true that the data seem to point to growth being more rapid in H. antecessor, as highlighted by the CENIEH research team on the basis of dental evidence”, emphasizes Bermúdez de Castro.

This paper lays the foundations for how the shoulder girdle developed in Lower Pleistocene species, and opens the door to new research studying shoulder development in fossil species, as it may become possible to expand the timeframe and study this development even in Pliocene species like the genus Australopithecus.

Full bibliographic information

García-Martínez, D., Green, D., Bermúdez de Castro, J.M. 2021. Evolutionary development of the Homo antecessor scapulae (Gran Dolina site, Atapuerca) suggests a modern-like development for Lower Pleistocene Homo. Scientific Reports. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-83039


Press release from CENIEH

The temporal lobes of Homo erectus were proportionally smaller than in H. sapiens

The temporal lobes of Homo erectus were proportionally smaller than in H. sapiens

The CENIEH has contributed to a paleoneurological study published in the journal Quaternary International, on the brain of Homo erectus, which analyzes its temporal lobes and compares these with other species like H. ergaster and H. sapiens
temporal lobes erectus sapiens ergaster
Pearson at al.

Emiliano Bruner, a paleoneurologist at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), has participated in a study published in the journal Quaternary International, on the anatomy of the temporal lobes in the brain of Homo erectus, which establishes that they were proportionally smaller than in modern humans.

In H. sapiens, the temporal lobes are relatively more highly developed than in other primates, although little is known about their anatomy in extinct human species, because they are housed in a very delicate region of the cranium known as the middle cranial fossa, which is often not conserved in fossil individuals.

An earlier study by the same team had shown that the size of the middle cranial fossa can be used to deduce the volume of the temporal lobes. In this new study, three anatomical diameters were analyzed in fossils of H. erectus and H. ergaster, and compared with the corresponding measurements for 51 modern humans. The results suggest that both fossil species had temporal lobes proportionally smaller than in humans today.

Moreover, “The Asiatic individuals, namely Homo erectus, had larger temporal lobes than in the African ones, Homo ergaster, although the scanty fossil record does not allow us to tell whether this is due to chance or a paleoneurological difference between the two species”, says Bruner.

As the temporal lobe is a brain region involved in the integration of many cognitive functions, such as memory, the emotions, hearing, social relations and language, any change in their sizes or proportions is of transcendent importance, as this could reveal variations in the development of their neurons or their connections, and therefore in the cognitive functions associated to this region of the cerebral cortex.

This study has been conducted by Alannah Pearson, a doctoral student of Emiliano Bruner at the Australian National University in Canberra (Australia), in collaboration with Professor David Polly, of Indiana University (USA).


Full bibliographic information

Pearson, A., Polly, P. D., & Bruner, E. (2020). Temporal lobe evolution in Javanese Homo erectus and African Homo ergaster: inferences from the cranial base. Quaternary International (0). doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2020.07.048.


Press release from CENIEH

A study proposes the low genetic diversity of the Neanderthals as the principal cause of their extinction

New data support the theory of low genetic diversity of Neanderthals as the main cause of their extinction

Atles (Kr.98) recovered from the Krapina site that presents the anatomical variant known as Unclosed Transverse Foramen

What caused the disappearance of Homo neanderthalensis, a species that apparently had as many capabilities as Homo sapiens? There are several theories that try to explain it: climate, competition with Homo sapiens, low genetic diversity... A study in which the Universitat de València is participating analyses the first cervical vertebra of several Neanderthals and confirms that the genetic diversity of the population was low, which made it difficult for them to adapt to possible changes in the environment and, therefore, to survive. The research has been published in the Journal of Anatomy.

Professor Juan Alberto Sanchis Gimeno, from the Department of Human Anatomy and Embryology of the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry of the Universitat de València; the National Museum of Natural Sciences (MNCN-CSIC), and the National Centre for Research on Human Evolution (CENIEH) have participated in the study. Three vertebrae from the Krapina site (Croatia) have been analysed and material from other sites has been reviewed.

Neanderthals inhabited the European continent until barely 30,000 years ago and their disappearance remains a mystery. In order to know their genetic diversity, work has been done to decipher their genome, but also to analyze different anatomical characteristics of the fossil record of the species. "In this study we have focused on the anatomical variants of the first cervical vertebra, known as the atlas. The anatomical variants of this vertebra have a high relationship with genetic diversity: the higher the prevalence of this type of anatomical variants, the lower the population genetic diversity", explains MNCN researcher Carlos A. Palancar.

In Homo sapiens the anatomical variants of the atlas have been widely studied in recent years. In the case of modern humans, the atlas shows some of the different anatomical variants in almost 30% of cases. "However, probably due to the poor preservation of this cervical vertebra and the little material recovered in the fossil record, the atlas of Neanderthals have hardly been observed under this magnifying glass," says Juan Alberto Sanchis Gimeno, a researcher at the Universitat de València.

Recently, researchers from the MNCN Paleonanthropology Group determined the presence of different anatomical variants in the atlases of the Neandertals from the El Sidrón site (Asturias). In order to confirm the high prevalence of anatomical variants of this species, they thoroughly analyzed the fossil atlases of the Neandertals from the Krapina site (Croatia). "Krapina is a site of about 130,000 years old, compared to about 50,000 years old in El Sidrón. It is the site from which the largest number of Neanderthal remains have been recovered, which makes it a sample of special interest in the analysis of the genetic diversity of this species since potentially all the individuals belonged to the same population," points out Daniel García-Martínez, researcher at the CENIEH.

The study of the anatomy of the three atlases recovered in this site has revealed the presence of anatomical variants in two of them (66%). One of them, known as Unclosed Transverse Foramen, UTF, has a prevalence of only 10% in modern humans. "Checking the presence of these anatomical variants in Krapina, together with the review of other atlases presented to the scientific community that have not been analyzed under this perspective until now and that yield similar data (more than 50%), suggests that the number of variants in Neanderthals is significantly higher than that of current humans," says Palancar.

"These data support the theory that their genetic diversity was very low and confirm that this could be one of the causes of their disappearance," concludes MNCN researcher Markus Bastir.

Press release from Asociación RUVID; Source: Universidad de Valencia

A study proposes the low genetic diversity of the Neanderthals as the principal cause of their extinction

The CENIEH has participated in a paper published in the Journal of Anatomy on the first cervical vertebra, atlas, of several Neanderthals from the Krapina site (Croatia), which confirms that the genetic diversity of these populations was low

Neanderthals extinction
Atlas from Neanderthals found in Krapina site. Credits: Carlos A. Palancar et al

What caused the disappearance of Homo neanderthalensis, a species which apparently possessed as many capacities as Homo sapiens? There are several theories attempting to explain this: the climate, competition, low genetic diversity… Daniel Garcia Martínez, a researcher at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), has participated in a study published in the Journal of Anatomy, on the first cervical vertebra of several Neanderthals, which confirms that the genetic diversity of the population was low, thus hampering their capacity to adapt to possible changes in their environment and, therefore, their survival.

The Neanderthals inhabited the European continent until barely 30,000 years ago, and their disappearance continues to be a mystery. Work to decipher their genome has been carried out to determine their genetic diversity, as have analyses of different anatomical characteristics in the fossil record of the species.

“We have centered on the anatomical variants of the first cervical vertebra, known as the atlas. The anatomical variants of this vertebra are tightly bound up with genetic diversity: the greater the prevalence of this kind of anatomical variant, the lower the population genetic diversity", explains Carlos A. Palancar, a researcher at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales.

In H. sapiens, the anatomical variants of the atlas have been extensively studied over recent years. With regard to modern humans, the atlas presents one or more of the different anatomical variations in almost 30% of cases.

El Sidrón

In this study, in which researchers from the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid (MNCN-CSIC) and the Universidad de Valencia also participated, three vertebrae from the Krapina site (Croatia) were analyzed, and the material from other sites such as El Sidrón (Asturias) was reviewed.

Recently, researchers from the Paleoanthropology Group at the MNCN determined the presence of different anatomical variants in the atlases from the El Sidrón Neanderthals. With the objective of confirming the high prevalence of these anatomical variants in the species, they conducted exhaustive analyses of the Neanderthal fossil atlases from Krapina.

“Krapina is a site around 130,000 years old, compared with the age of 50,000 or so for El Sidrón. This is the site from which the highest number of Neanderthal remains has been recovered, which makes these a sample of particular interest when analyzing the genetic diversity of this species, as all the individuals may potentially have belonged to the same population”, says García-Martínez.

Full bibliographic information

Palancar C.A., García-Martínez D., Radovčić D., et al. (2020) Krapina atlases suggest a high prevalence of anatomical variations in the first cervical vertebra of Neanderthals. Journal of Anatomy DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/joa.13215
Press release from CENIEH

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

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

See: https://science.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi/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