New excavations carried out as part of the Gibraltar Caves Project have revealed that the diet of our primitive relatives the Neanderthals was much more sophisticated and similar to that of early modern humans than previously thought.
Hearth embers, shells, animal bones and the remains of marine species were found in the Gorham and Vanguard caves, on Gibraltar’s eastern flank, by an international team of scientists led by Chris Stringer from London’s Natural History Museum and Clive Finlayson from the Gibraltar Museum.
An impression of the Neanderthals coastal foraging habits and diet was provided by the discovery of fossils including bear, ibex, red deer and wild boar as well as bones and shells from dolphins, monk seals and mussels.
Many of the bones showed signs of damage from cutting and peeling, and the mussels were apparently warmed on a fire to open them up.
The excavations may also be point to why Neanderthals living in the Gibraltar caves lived around 7,000 years longer than those elsewhere. It is thought that the abundant food supply and stabilizing influence of the Atlantic on the local climate provided Gibraltar’s Neanderthals with protection from the effects of glaciation occurring further north which heavily impacted flora and fauna and accelerated their demise.
Commenting on the findings Professor Stringer said: ‘They would have had bone or wooden clubs to kill young seals and may have had skin bags to collect mussels in, which they brought back to the cave and put on the embers of a fire to open them’.
‘The dolphins would have been delivered to them dead on a plate, after they beached either because they were ill, injured or had died at sea,’ Stringer added. From the cave they had a great vantage point, and even if they didn’t see the dolphins wash ashore, they would see the birds gathering and would be able to go down and claim the carcass for themselves’.
The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Natural History Museum
Photo: Natural History Museum