Neandertals underwater clam shells

Neandertals went underwater to collect clam shells and pumice for their tools

Neandertals went underwater for their tools

Neandertals collected clam shells and pumice from coastal waters to use as tools

Neandertals underwater clam shells
General morphology of retouched shell tools, Figs C-L are from the Pigorini Museum. Credit: Villa et al., 2020 CC-BY

Neandertals collected clam shells and volcanic rock from the beach and coastal waters of Italy during the Middle Paleolithic, according to a study published January 15, 2020 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Paola Villa of the University of Colorado and colleagues.

Neandertals are known to have used tools, but the extent to which they were able to exploit coastal resources has been questioned. In this study, Villa and colleagues explored artifacts from the Neandertal archaeological cave site of Grotta dei Moscerini in Italy, one of two Neandertal sites in the country with an abundance of hand-modified clam shells, dating back to around 100,000 years ago.

The authors examined 171 modified shells, most of which had be retouched to be used as scrapers. All of these shells belonged to the Mediterranean smooth clam species Callista chione. Based on the state of preservation of the shells, including shell damage and encrustation on the shells by marine organisms, the authors inferred that nearly a quarter of the shells had been collected underwater from the sea floor, as live animals, as opposed to being washed up on the beach. In the same cave sediments, the authors also found abundant pumice stones likely used as abrading tools, which apparently drifted via sea currents from erupting volcanoes in the Gulf of Naples (70km south) onto the Moscerini beach, where they were collected by Neandertals.

These findings join a growing list of evidence that Neandertals in Western Europe were in the practice of wading or diving into coastal waters to collect resources long before Homo sapiens brought these habits to the region. The authors also note that shell tools were abundant in sediment layers that had few stone tools, suggesting Neandertals might have turned to making shell tools during times where more typical stone materials were scarce (though it's also possible that clam shells were used because they have a thin and sharp cutting edge, which can be maintained through re-sharpening, unlike flint tools).

The authors add: "The cave opens on a beach. It has a large assemblage of 171 tools made on shells collected on the beach or gathered directly from the sea floor as live animals by skin diving Neandertals. Skin diving for shells or fresh water fishing in low waters was a common activity of Neandertals, according to data from other sites and from an anatomical study published by E. Trinkaus. Neandertals also collected pumices erupted from volcanoes in the gulf of Naples and transported by sea to the beach."

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Citation: Villa P, Soriano S, Pollarolo L, Smriglio C, Gaeta M, D'Orazio M, et al. (2020) Neandertals on the beach: Use of marine resources at Grotta dei Moscerini (Latium, Italy). PLoS ONE 15(1): e0226690. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0226690

Funding: National Science Foundation Grant 1118143, BCS Archaeology, to PV (PI) and SS (co-PI). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

 

Press release from the Public Library of Science

Beach-combing Neanderthals dove for shells

Did Neanderthals wear swimsuits? Probably not. But a new study suggests that some of these ancient humans might have spent a lot of time at the beach. They may even have dived into the cool waters of the Mediterranean Sea to gather clam shells.

The findings come from Grotta dei Moscerini, a picturesque cave that sits just 10 feet above a beach in what is today the Latium region of central Italy.

In 1949, archaeologists working at the site dug up some unusual artifacts: dozens of seashells that Neanderthals had picked up, then shaped into sharp tools roughly 90,000 years ago.

Now, a team led by Paola Villa of the University of Colorado Boulder has uncovered new secrets from those decades-old discoveries. In research published today (editor's note: January 15) in the journal PLOS ONE, she and her colleagues report that the Neanderthals didn't just collect shells that were lying out on the beach. They may have actually held their breath and went diving for the perfect shells to meet their needs.

Villa, an adjoint curator in the CU Museum of Natural History, said the results show that Neanderthals may have had a much closer connection to the sea than many scientists thought.

"The fact they were exploiting marine resources was something that was known," Villa said. "But until recently, no one really paid much attention to it."

Cave discoveries

When archaeologists first found shell tools in Grotta dei Moscerini, it came as a surprise. While Neanderthals are well-known for crafting spear tips out of stone, few examples exist of them turning shells into tools.

But the find wasn't a fluke. The 1949 excavation of the cave unearthed 171 such tools, all valves from shell belonging to a local species of mollusk called the smooth clam (Callista chione). Villa explained that the ancient humans used stone hammers to chip away at these shells, forming cutting edges that would have stayed thin and sharp for a long time.

"No matter how many times you retouch a clam shell, its cutting edge will remain very thin and sharp," she said.

But did the Neanderthals, like many beachgoers today, simply collect these shells while taking a stroll along the sand?

To find out, Villa and her colleagues took a closer look at those tools. In the process, they found something they weren't expecting. Nearly three-quarters of the Moscerini shell tools had opaque and slightly abraded exteriors, as if they had been sanded down over time. That's what you'd expect to see, Villa said, on shells that had washed up on a sandy beach.

The rest of the shells had a shiny, smooth exterior.

Those shells, which also tended to be a little bit bigger, had to have been plucked directly from the seafloor as live animals.

"It's quite possible that the Neanderthals were collecting shells as far down as 2 to 4 meters," Villa said. "Of course, they did not have scuba equipment."

Researchers also turned up a large number of pumice stones from the cave that Neanderthals had collected and may have used as abrading tools. The stones, Villa and her colleagues determined, washed onto the Moscerini beach from volcanic eruptions that occurred more than 40 miles to the south.

Going for a dip

She's not alone in painting a picture of beach-loving Neanderthals.

In an earlier study, for example, a team led by anthropologist Erik Trinkaus identified bony growths on the ears of a few Neanderthal skeletons. These features, called "swimmer's ear," can be found in people who practice aquatic sports today.

For Villa, the findings are yet more proof that Neanderthals were just as flexible and creative as their human relatives when it came to eking out a living--a strong contrast to their representation in popular culture as a crude cavemen who lived by hunting or scavenging mammoths.

"People are beginning to understand that Neanderthals didn't just hunt large mammals," Villa said. "They also did things like freshwater fishing and even skin diving."

Other coauthors on the new study included researchers from the French National Centre for Scientific Research, the University of Geneva, Roma Tre University, Sapienza University of Rome and the University of Pisa.

Press release from the University of Colorado at Boulder

 

 

 

 

 


Neanderthals glue stone tools

Neanderthals used resin 'glue' to craft their stone tools

Neanderthals used resin 'glue' to craft their stone tools

Neanderthals glue stone tools
Artist's rendition of Earth approximately 60,000 years ago. Picture from nasa.gov

Archaeologists working in two Italian caves have discovered some of the earliest known examples of ancient humans using an adhesive on their stone tools--an important technological advance called "hafting."

The new study, which included CU Boulder's Paola Villa, shows that Neanderthals living in Europe from about 55 to 40 thousand years ago traveled away from their caves to collect resin from pine trees. They then used that sticky substance to glue stone tools to handles made out of wood or bone.

The findings add to a growing body of evidence that suggests that these cousins of Homo sapiens were more clever than some have made them out to be.

"We continue to find evidence that the Neanderthals were not inferior primitives but were quite capable of doing things that have traditionally only been attributed to modern humans," said Villa, corresponding author of the new study and an adjoint curator at the CU Museum of Natural History.

Neanderthals glue stone tools
Flints bearing traces of pine resin. The letter "R" indicates the presence of visible resin, and the arrows point to spots where researchers sampled material for chemical analysis. (Credit: Degano et al. 2019, PLOS ONE)

That insight, she added, came from a chance discovery from Grotta del Fossellone and Grotta di Sant'Agostino, a pair of caves near the beaches of what is now Italy's west coast.

Those caves were home to Neanderthals who lived in Europe during the Middle Paleolithic period, thousands of years before Homo sapiens set foot on the continent. Archaeologists have uncovered more than 1,000 stone tools from the two sites, including pieces of flint that measured not much more than an inch or two from end to end.

In a recent study of the tools, Villa and her colleagues noticed a strange residue on just a handful of the flints--bits of what appeared to be organic material.

"Sometimes that material is just inorganic sediment, and sometimes it's the traces of the adhesive used to keep the tool in its socket" Villa said.

Warm fires

To find out, study lead author Ilaria Degano at the University of Pisa conducted a chemical analysis of 10 flints using a technique called gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. The tests showed that the stone tools had been coated with resin from local pine trees. In one case, that resin had also been mixed with beeswax.

Villa explained that the Italian Neanderthals didn't just resort to their bare hands to use stone tools. In at least some cases, they also attached those tools to handles to give them better purchase as they sharpened wooden spears or performed other tasks like butchering or scraping leather.

"You need stone tools to cut branches off of trees and make them into a point," Villa said.

The find isn't the oldest known example of hafting by Neanderthals in Europe--two flakes discovered in the Campitello Quarry in central Italy predate it. But it does suggest that this technique was more common than previously believed.

The existence of hafting also provides more evidence that Neanderthals, like their smaller human relatives, were able to build a fire whenever they wanted one, Villa said--something that scientists have long debated. She said that pine resin dries when exposed to air. As a result, Neanderthals needed to warm it over a small fired to make an effective glue.

"This is one of several proofs that strongly indicate that Neanderthals were capable of making fire whenever they needed it," Villa said.

In other words, enjoying the glow of a warm campfire isn't just for Homo sapiens.

Other coauthors on the study included researchers at Paris Nanterre University in France, University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, University of Wollongong in Australia, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, Istituto Italiano di Paleontologia Umana and the University of Pisa.

The research was funded by a National Science Foundation grant to Paola Villa and Sylvain Soriano.

 

Press release from the University of Colorado at Boulder.


'Ein Qashish Neanderthal

Neanderthals made repeated use of the ancient settlement of 'Ein Qashish, Israel

Neanderthals made repeated use of the ancient settlement of 'Ein Qashish, Israel

This site provides a rare opportunity to study long-term use of an open air settlement

'Ein Qashish Neanderthal
The archaeological site of 'Ein Qashish in northern Israel was a place of repeated Neanderthal occupation and use during the Middle Paleolithic, according to a study released June 26, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Ravid Ekshtain of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and colleagues. Credit: Ekshtain, 2019, CC-BY

The archaeological site of 'Ein Qashish in northern Israel was a place of repeated Neanderthal occupation and use during the Middle Paleolithic, according to a study released June 26, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Ravid Ekshtain of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and colleagues.

In the Levant region of the Middle East, the main source of information on Middle Paleolithic human occupation comes from cave sites. Compared to open air settlements, sheltered sites like caves were easily recognized and often visited, and therefore are more likely to record long periods of occupation. The open-air site of 'Ein Qashish in northern Israel, however, is unusual in having been inhabited over an extended prehistoric time period. This site provides a unique opportunity to explore an open-air locality across a large landscape and over a long period ranging between 71,000 and 54,000 years ago.

In a joint collaboration with the Israel Antiquities Authority Ekshtain and colleagues identified human skeletal remains in 'Ein Qashish as Neanderthal and observed more than 12,000 artifacts from four different depositional units in the same location on the landscape. These units represent different instances of occupation during changing environmental conditions.

From modification of artifacts and animal bones at the site, the authors infer that the occupants were knapping tools, provisioning resources, and consuming animals on-site.

Whereas many open-air settlements are thought to be short-lived and chosen for specialized tasks, 'Ein Qashish appears to be the site of repeated occupations each of which hosted a range of general activities, indicating a stable and consistent settlement system. The authors suggest that within a complex settlement system, open-air sites may have been more important for prehistoric humans than previously thought.

Ekshtain adds: "Ein Qashish is a 70-60 thousand years open-air site, with a series of stratified human occupations in a dynamic flood plain environment. The site stands out in the extensive excavated area and some unique finds for an open-air context, from which we deduce the diversity of human activities on the landscape. In contrast to other known open-air sites, the locality was not used for task-specific activities but rather served time and again as a habitation location. The stratigraphy, dates and finds from the site allow a reconstruction of a robust settlement system of the late Neanderthals in northern Israel slightly before their disappearance from the regional record, raising questions about the reasons for their disappearance and about their interactions with contemporaneous modern humans."

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ancient hearths fire Neanderthal settlements Paleolithic

Modern analysis of ancient hearths reveals Neanderthal settlement patterns

Modern analysis of ancient hearths reveals Neanderthal settlement patterns

Microscopic and molecular evidence at paleolithic hearth sites helps uncover Neanderthal mobility habits

ancient hearths fire Neanderthal settlements Paleolithic
Field photograph of Neanderthal combustion structure and microscope photograph of organic components in the black layer of the combustion structure. Credit: Leierer et al, 2019. CC-BY

Ancient fire remains provide evidence of Neanderthal group mobility and settlement patterns and indicate specific occupation episodes, according to a new study published in PLOS ONE on April 24, 2019 by Lucia Leierer and colleagues from Universidad de La Laguna, Spain.

Most paleolithic household activities are thought to have taken place around hearths or fires. The author of the present study chose to examine the Middle Paleolithic site El Salt in Spain, which contains eleven well-preserved and overlapping open-air hearth structures. It was previously unclear whether these hearths were formed during successive short-term site occupations or fewer, longer term occupations. The authors examined the micromorphology of the different layers within the hearth structures to assess occupation timings within the study unit and conducted both a lipid biomarker analysis and isotope analysis to gain information about potential food and fuel.

The results of the analyses show stratified hearths built on multiple different topsoils over different periods of time. The burned organic matter present at the El Salt hearths is rich in herbivore excrement and flowering plant residues. The presence of flint and bone shards, as well as conifer wood charcoal collected from trees not present at the site, provide evidence of limited activity at the site. The authors suggest these data indicate at least four successive short-term Neanderthal occupations separated by relatively long periods of time, potentially based around the seasons.

The authors suggest their molecular and micromorphological methods would work well at similar paleolithic sites where fires were built. Their findings provide evidence for successive short-term Neanderthal occupations at this site, and could inform our understanding of Neanderthal group mobility and settlement more generally.

Leierer adds: "Micromorphology combined with lipid biomarker analysis is a powerful approach to investigate anthropogenic combustion-related archaeological contexts from a microstratigraphic perspective which can contribute valuable information on the timing and intensity of Neanderthal occupations as well as the natural setting of the site. These are key factors of group mobility and settlement patterns."

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