The economy of hunter gatherers in the Mediterranean coasts between the Pleistocene and Holocene included exploitation of marine environment

The economy of hunter gatherers in the Mediterranean coasts between the Pleistocene and Holocene included exploitation of marine environment

The study carried out by the Universitat Jaume I, the Municipal Archaeological Museum of Cartagena, the Provincial Council of Castellón and the University of Barcelona confirms that its use during the Mesolithic period was greater than previously thought.
Pleistocene Holocene marine
The map with the sites

New discoveries and material reviews by an inter-institutional research team have confirmed that the economic context at the end of the transition between the Pleistocene and the Holocene on the Mediterranean coast were richer, more complex and more varied than was previously thought. The exploitation of marine resources was not limited to the harvesting of molluscs, but also included fishing, although not many remains have been preserved, probably because the preservation of these types of materials is more delicate or because of the eating habits of ancient human populations.

Until a few years ago, little was known about the characteristics of the economy of hunter-gatherer groups in the Mediterranean during the transition from the Pleistocene (the glacial era, the Palaeolithic) to the Holocene (post-glacial, the time we live in today). Most of the studies carried out in the Iberian Peninsula suggested that the sites of marine exploitation were located particularly in the Cantabrian and Atlantic area, but the new data and studies provided by the research team can change this paradigm.

The research and analysis work, whose conclusions have been published in The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology, has involved Dídac Román, doctoral researcher of excellence of the GenT Plan of the Valencian Regional Government in the Department of History, Geography and Art at the Universitat Jaume I and the Pre-EINA research group; Miguel Martínez Andreu from the Municipal Archaeological Museum of Cartagena; Gustau Aguilella from the Archaeological and Prehistoric Research Service of the Castellón Provincial Council and Josep Maria Fullola and Jordi Nadal from the Prehistoric Studies and Research Seminar (SERP) of the University of Barcelona.

Data collected during the research confirm that the use of marine resources during the late Palaeolithic and Mesolithic on the Iberian Mediterranean coast was clearly more common than was previously thought with the data available at the time. The difference regarding the presence of less evidence than in the case of the Cantabrian and Atlantic coasts, where there are more hunter-gatherer-fisherman sites catalogued, could be due to different reasons: greater richness and diversity of life due to the cold marine currents, more abundant in nutrients; presence of tides and other environmental factors and better preservation of the sites over time thanks to a coastal platform and a steeper coastline that protected them from the progressive flooding of the environment with the melting of the poles during the Holocene.

Dídac Román, Miguel Martínez-Andreu, Gustau Aguilella, Josep Maria Fullola & Jordi Nadal (2020): “Shellfish collectors on the seashore: the exploitation of the marine environment between the end of the Paleolithic and the Mesolithic in the Mediterranean Iberia”, The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology.

Press release from Asociación RUVID


The new findings and examinations of material carried out by a multi-institutional research proved the economic context at the end of the transition between the Plesitocene and the Holocene in the Mediterranean coasts to be richer, more complex and varied than what we thought. Exploitation of marine resources was not limited to a recollection of molluscs, but it also included fishing, although not many remains were preserved, probably because the preservation of such materials is more delicate or due to the eating habits of ancient human populations.

The conclusions of this research and analytical study have been published in The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology. Among the participants in the study are Dídac Román, researcher at Plan Gent of the Valencian Government in the Department of History, Geography and Arts of the University Jaume I and the research group Pre-EINA; Miguel Martínez Andreu, from the Archaeological Museum of Cartagena; Gustay Aguilella, from the Service of Archaeological and Prehistoric Research of Diputación de Castellón, and Josep Maria Fullola and Jordi Nadal, from the Prehistoric Studies and Research Seminar (SERP) of the University of Barcelona, in which the first signer of the study participates as well.

Until some years ago, we did not know much about the economic features of hunter-gatherer groups in the Mediterranean during the transition from the Pleistocene (ice age, Palaeolithic), to the Holocene (post-glaciation, current moment we live in). Most of the studies carried out in the Iberian Peninsula suggested that the areas of marine exploitation were specifically in the Cantabrian and Atlantic areas, but new data and studies conducted by the research team change this paradigm now.

The collected data during the research study states that the use of marine resources at the end of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic in the Iberian Mediterranean coasts was more common than what people thought with the existing data. The difference regarding the presence of less evidence in the Cantabrian and Atlantic coasts, where there are more areas of hunter-gatherer-fishers, could be due to several reasons: more richness and life diversity due to cold marine currents, more nutrients; presence of tides and other environmental factors, and a better preservation of the areas over time (thanks to a littoral platform and an abrupt coast that protected these from a progressive flood of the environment with the melting of the poles during the Holocene).

SERP studies and Catalan records

Although the results of the article resulted from an interdisciplinary study, in which members of different research centres collaborated to obtain data from all regions, SERP-UB has led two essential aspects in this study. On the one hand, the analysis of the bioarchaeological elements –mainly faunistic remains–, on which the conclusions are based in order to show the importance of the utility of the marine resources by the communities of hunter-gatherers in the study area. On the other hand, obtaining radiocarbon dating in different sites, some excavations from years ago and others which are currently active. These datings are the ones to enable researchers to date the exploitation marine events between 13,000 and 7,000 years ago approximately. Moreover, the SERP studies carried out the interpretation of data in the Catalan area, with the examination of material from old excavations that are now in different museums.

Among these are the collections in the Archaeology Museum Salvador Vilaseca in Reus, which features material from key sites for the current study, such as Camping Salou (Salou) or the cave Cova del Solà d’en Pep (Hospitalet de l’Infant), excavated by Salvador Vilaseca. Although they are not mentioned in the article, other synchronic archaeological excavations are now a target excavation for SERP in Catalonia. The objective is to go beyond the evaluation of the importance of the subsistence of marine origins in the coastal areas but also to value the type of resources among the last populations of hunter-gatherers in the area. Thus, shells used as ornaments have been found in Priorat (El Filador and Hort de la Boquera), Moianès (Balma del Gai), La Noguera (Cova del Parco) and even in Cerdanya (Montlleó).

Ten Mediterranean sites

Researchers analysed remains from ten archaeological sites, located over the 800 kilometers of the Mediterranean coast, from Tarragona to Málaga, specifically La Cativera, Camping Salou and Solà d’en Pep (Tarragona); L’Assut and La Cova (Castellón); El Collado (Valencia); Algarrobo, Caballo and La Higuera (Murcia)and Nerja (Málaga). Contrary to what people thought, places in the south show a larger diversity of resources (the most paradigmatic is in the cave in Nerja). This would happen due to the entrance of waters from the Atlantic Ocean, its proximity, and it can be proved because there is presence of species such as L. Obtusata and species from colder climates such as cod species M. Aeglefinus and O. Pollachius. The Mediterranean is poorer regarding its biology due to salinity, temperature, lack of nutrients and unpredictable tides.

In general, the exploitation of marine resources (mainly molluscs) is related to the exploitation of terrestrial invertebrates and the presence of mammal remains (deer, Iberian ibex, rabbits, among others). However, researchers confirmed there is a decrease in terrestrial invertebrates in favour of marine resources over time. This feature has been observed in those places that conserved remains over long periods of time such as the cave in Nerja, or studied areas that show an older chronology such as Càmping Salou, La Cova, Caballo, Algarrobo and La Higuera. Among the studied molluscs are sea urchins (Solà d’en Pep and Nerja), crustaceans (Caballo), and cephalopods (Nerja), and among fish, the red sea bream is the most found in places with seasonal marsh (El Collado, Caballo and La Higuera), varieties of cod in Nerja and marine birds and mammals (Monachus and Deplhinus).

Another important aspect of the study was to evaluate whether the location and exploitation could be linked to the proximity to the sea, but according to the obtained data, at the time of occupation, these places were not exactly coastal areas (La Cova and El Collado, for instance); their inhabitants had to move about thirty kilometres to get supplies.

The research team used data on the fluctuations of the sea level during its activity in the late Palaeolithic and Mesolithic to calculate the distance to the coast. To estimate the distance, they combined different digital models of the area with bathymetry, which enabled a simulation of different positions of the coast in ranks, and researchers could specify whether it was within the two-hour isochrone of the sites, a distance considered the common area where hunter-gatherers carried out their activities.

The extension of the continental platform and the shape of the coast has been important for this research. The south east area of the peninsula is a relatively sheer area with a continental platform that has deep cliffs, but these features have protected it from important orographic changes. The central area (Tarragona, Castellón and Valencia) is completely different. The sedimentation of the Ebro Riber conditions the existence of a smooth and low altitude in the coast with a big continental platform that has changed its orography due to marine regression and transgression.

Reference article:

Dídac Román, Miguel Martínez-Andreu, Gustau Aguilella, Josep Maria Fullola & Jordi Nadal (2020): “Shellfish collectors donde the seashore: The exploitation of the marino environment between the end of the Paleolithic and the Mesolithic in the Mediterranean Iberia”The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology.


Press release from the University of Barcelona.

seafood Arabia out of Africa

Seafood helped prehistoric people migrate out of Africa, study reveals

Seafood helped prehistoric people migrate out of Africa, study reveals

Prehistoric pioneers could have relied on shellfish to sustain them as they followed migratory routes out of Africa during times of drought, a new study suggests.

seafood out of Africa Arabia Farasan Islands
Living specimen of the marine mollusc Conomurex fasciatus. Millions of these shells were found on the Farasan Islands in Saudi Arabia as the food refuse of prehistoric fishers. Photo credit: Dr Niklas Hausmann

The study examined fossil reefs near to the now-submerged Red Sea shorelines that marked prehistoric migratory routes from Africa to Arabia. The findings suggest this coast offered the resources necessary to act as a gateway out of Africa during periods of little rainfall when other food sources were scarce.

The research team, led by the University of York, focused on the remains of 15,000 shells dating back 5,000 years to an arid period in the region. With the coastline of original migratory routes submerged by sea-level rise after the last Ice Age, the shells came from the nearby Farasan Islands in Saudi Arabia.


The researchers found that populations of marine mollusks were plentiful enough to allow continuous harvests without any major ecological impacts and their availability would have enabled people to live through times of drought.

Lead author, Dr Niklas Hausmann, Associate Researcher at the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said: "The availability of food resources plays an important role in understanding the feasibility of past human migrations – hunter-gatherer migrations would have required local food sources and periods of aridity could therefore have restricted these movements.

“Our study suggests that Red Sea shorelines had the resources necessary to provide a passage for prehistoric people.”

Healthy population

The study also confirms that communities settled on the shorelines of the Red Sea could have relied on shellfish as a sustainable food resource all year round.

Dr Hausmann added: “Our data shows that at a time when many other resources on land were scarce, people could rely on their locally available shellfish. Previous studies have shown that people of the southern Red Sea ate shellfish year-round and over periods of thousands of years. We now also know that this resource was not depleted by them, but shellfish continued to maintain a healthy population.”

Fossil reefs

The shellfish species found in the archaeological sites on the Farasan Islands were also found in abundance in fossil reefs dating to over 100 thousand years ago, indicating that these shellfish have been an available resource over longer periods than archaeological sites previously suggested.

Co-author of the study, Matthew Meredith-Williams, from La Trobe University, said: "We know that modelling past climates to learn about food resources is extremely helpful, but we need to differentiate between what is happening on land and what is happening in the water. In our study we show that marine foods were abundant and resilient and being gathered by people when they couldn't rely on terrestrial food."


Shellfish resilience to prehistoric human consumption in the southern Red Sea: Variability in Conomurex fasciatus across time and space is published in Quaternary International. The research was funded by the European Research Council.


Press release on seafood helping prehistoric people migrate out of Africa from the University of York


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

Rare fossils provide more detailed picture of biodiversity during Middle Ordovician

Rare fossils provide more detailed picture of biodiversity during Middle Ordovician

Middle Ordovician
Maine fossils from Portugal are shedding light on Middle Ordovician, where there had been a gap in the fossil record. Credit: Julien Kimmig / KU News Service

LAWRENCE -- A clutch of marine fossil specimens unearthed in northern Portugal that lived between 470 and 459 million years ago is filling a gap in understanding evolution during the Middle Ordovician period.

The discovery, explained in a new paper just published in The Science of Nature, details three fossils found in a new "Burgess Shale-type deposit." (The Burgess Shale is a deposit in Canada renowned among evolutionary biologists for excellent preservation of soft-bodied organisms that don't have a biomineralized exoskeleton.)

"The paper describes the first soft-body fossils preserved as carbonaceous films from Portugal," said lead author Julien Kimmig, collections manager at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum. "But what makes this even more important is that it's one of the few deposits that are actually from the Ordovician period -- and even more importantly, they're from the Middle Ordovician, a time were very few soft-bodied fossils are known."

Kimmig and his KU Biodiversity Institute colleagues, undergraduate researcher Wade Leibach and senior curator Bruce Lieberman, along with Helena Couto of the University of Porto in Portugal (who discovered the fossils), describe three marine fossil specimens: a medusoid (jellyfish), possible wiwaxiid sclerites and an arthropod carapace.

"Before this, there had been nothing found on the Iberian Peninsula in the Ordovician that even resembled these," Kimmig said. "They close a gap in time and space. And what's very interesting is the kind of fossils. We find Medusozoa -- a jellyfish -- as well as animals which appear to be wiwaxiids, which are sluglike armored mollusks that have big spines. We found these lateral sclerites of animals which were actually thought to have gone extinct in the late Cambrian. There might have been some that survived into the Ordovician in a Morocco deposit, but nothing concrete has been ever published on those. And here we have evidence for the first ones actually in the middle of the Ordovician, so it extends the range of these animals incredibly."

Kimmig said the discovery of uncommon wiwaxiids fossils in this time frame suggests the animals lived on Earth for a far greater span of time than previously understood.

"Especially with animals that are fairly rare that we don't have nowadays like wiwaxiids, it's quite nice to see they lived longer than we ever thought," he said. "Closely after this deposit, in the Upper Ordovician, we actually get a big extinction event. So, it's likely the wiwaxiids survived up to that big extinction event and didn't go extinct earlier due to other circumstances. But it might have been whatever caused the big Ordovician extinction event killed them off, too."

According to the researchers, the soft-bodied specimens fill a gap in the fossil record for the Middle Ordovician and suggest "many soft-bodied fossils in the Ordovician remain to be discovered, and a new look at deep-water shales and slates of this time period is warranted."

"It's a very interesting thing with these discoveries -- we're actually getting a lot of information about the distribution of animals chronologically and geographically," Kimmig said. "Also, this gives us a lot of information on how animals adapted to different environments and where they actually managed to live. With these soft-body deposits, we get a much better idea of how many animals there were and how their environment changed over time. It's something that applies to modern days, with changing climate and changing water temperatures, because we can see how animals over longer periods of time in the geologic record have actually adapted to these things."

The fossils were discovered in the Valongo Formation in northern Portugal, an area famed for containing trilobites. Credit: Julien Kimmig / KU News Service

Co-author Couto discovered the fossils in the Valongo Formation in northern Portugal, an area famed for containing trilobites. When the animals were alive, the Valongo Formation was part of a shallow sea on the margin of northern Gondwana, the primeval supercontinent.

"Based on the shelly fossils, the deposit looks like it was a fairly common Ordovician community," Kimmig said. "And now we know that in addition to those common fossils jellyfish were floating around, we had sluglike mollusks roaming on the ground, too, and we had bigger arthropods, which might have been predatory animals. So, in that regard, we're getting a far better image with these soft-bodied fossils of what these communities actually looked like."

According to the KU researcher, scientists didn't grasp until recently that deposits from this period could preserve soft-bodied specimens.

"For a long time, it was just not known that these kinds of deposits survived in to the Ordovician," Kimmig said. "So, it is likely these deposits are more common in the Ordovician than we know of, it's just that people were never looking for them."

Kimmig led analysis of the fossils at KU's Microscopy and Analytical Imaging Laboratory to ensure the fossils were made of organic material. Leibach, the KU undergraduate researcher, conducted much of the lab work.

"We analyzed the material and looked at the composition because sometimes you can get pseudo fossils -- minerals that create something that looks like a fossil," Kimmig said. "We had to make sure that these fossils actually had an organic origin. And what we found is that they contain carbon, which was the big indication they would actually be organic."


Press release from the University of Kansas

freshwater mussel shells mother-of-pearl

Freshwater mussel shells were material of choice for prehistoric craftsmen

Freshwater mussel shells were material of choice for prehistoric craftsmen

A new study suggests that 6000-years-ago people across Europe shared a cultural tradition of using freshwater mussel shells to craft ornaments.

freshwater mussel shells mother-of-pearl
These are prehistoric shell ornaments made with freshwater mother-of-pearl. Credit: Jérôme Thomas (UMR CNRS 6282 Biogeosciences, University of Burgundy-Franche-Comté)

An international team of researchers, including academics from the University of York, extracted ancient proteins from prehistoric shell ornaments - which look remarkably similar despite being found at distant locations in Denmark, Romania and Germany - and discovered they were all made using the mother-of-pearl of freshwater mussels.

The ornaments were made between 4200 and 3800 BC and were even found in areas on the coast where plenty of other shells would have been available.

Archaeological evidence suggests the ornaments, known as "double-buttons", may have been pressed into leather to decorate armbands or belts.

Cross-cultural tradition

Senior author of the study, Dr Beatrice Demarchi, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York and the University of Turin (Italy), said: "We were surprised to discover that the ornaments were all made from freshwater mussels because it implies that this material was highly regarded by prehistoric craftsmen, wherever they were in Europe and whatever cultural group they belonged to. Our study suggests the existence of a European-wide cross-cultural tradition for the manufacture of these double-buttons".

Freshwater molluscs have often been overlooked as a source of raw material in prehistory (despite the strength and resilience of mother-of-pearl) because many archaeologists believed that their local origin made them less "prestigious" than exotic marine shells.

Co-author of the paper, Dr André Colonese, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said: "The ornaments are associated with the Late Mesolithic, Late Neolithic and Copper Age cultures. Some of these groups were still living as hunter gatherers, but in the south they were farmers with switching to a more settled lifestyle.

"The fact that these ornaments look consistently similar and are made from the same material suggests there may have been some kind of interaction between these distinct groups of people at this time.

"They may have had a shared knowledge or tradition for how to manufacture these ornaments and clearly had a sophisticated understanding of the natural environment and which resources to use."


Mollusc shells contain a very small proportion of proteins compared to other bio-mineralised tissues, such as bone, making them difficult to analyse.

The researchers are now working on extracting proteins from fossilised molluscs, a method which they have dubbed "palaeoshellomics". These new techniques could offer fresh insights into some of the earliest forms of life on earth, enhancing our knowledge of evolution.

Dr Demarchi added: "This is the first time researchers have been able to retrieve ancient protein sequences from prehistoric shell ornaments in order to identify the type of mollusc they are made from.

"This research is an important step towards understanding how molluscs and other invertebrates evolved. We hope that using these techniques we will eventually be able to track an evolutionary process which began at least 550 million years ago."


"Palaeoshellomics" reveals the use of freshwater mother-of-pearl in prehistory is published in the journal eLife.

The research was carried out by researchers at the University of York, University of Turin and Ca' Foscari University (Italy), Universities of Burgundy-Franche-Comté and Lille (France), the University of Bradford (UK), the Moesgaard Museum (Denmark), the Landesamt für Denkmalpflege im Regierungspräsidium Stuttgart and the Niedersächsisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege (Germany).


Press release from University of York