Neanderthal Chow

If there is anything paleontological that is almost as interesting as a dinosaur, it is a Neanderthal!

Over the past two centuries, we have learned more and more about these people who lived alongside our ancestors and, evidently, interbred with us.  We can only hope that the breeding was mutually consensual, but with H. sap. sap. the odds are good that things were forced.

Anyway, we now know that H. sapiens neaderthalis were a lot like us, living in family groups, producing are and artifacts.  It seems likely that they had complex cultural practices, and I’d bet they talked (and made music [2]) just like us.

This spring, researchers from Portugal report yet another revealing finding [3, 4].  Caves in the hills at Figueira Brava were at the sea about 86 – 106 thousand years ago—ideal places to live.  These caves preserve the remains of the “food basket” of the people who lived here, which evidently included a lot of shellfish and fish as well as inland plants and animals.

These caves were inhabited by Neanderthals, so it is clear that they ate a lot of fish, shellfish, and everything else.  These people definitely must be related to us!

Apparently, the lack of such finds to date has led to theorizing that Neanderthals somehow didn’t or couldn’t harvest and eat fish. This would be a major advantage for modern humans, which could explain both the dominance of humans and some apparent patterns of dispersal (along coasts).

But the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, as the UFO folks like to say.  And now we have evidence that yet another supposed difference between us and our Neanderthal cousins never existed.

To me, this finding is hardly surprising. We only know of relatively trivial differences between them and us, and we don’t know why they died out.  But we know Neanderthals were people, and we still carry traces of their genes.

Have they even died out, or just been absorbed?

  1. Nicholas St. Fleur, Neanderthals Feasted on Seafood, Seabirds, Perhaps Even Dolphins, in New York Times. 2020: New York.
  2. Steven Mithen, Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2006.
  3. Manuel Will, Neanderthal surf and turf. Science, 367 (6485):1422, 2020.
  4. 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, and P. Souto, Last Interglacial Iberian Neandertals as fisher-hunter-gatherers. Science, 367 (6485):eaaz7943, 2020.

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