Mediterranean Sea for Clam Shells

Shell fishing was a common activity of Neanderthals, according to new research led by University of Colorado, Boulder archaeologists.
Homo neanderthalensis by Charles R. Knight.

In 1949, archaeologists working at the site of Grotta dei Moscerini, a cave in the Latium region of central Italy, found a large collection of unusual artifacts: 171 shells of the smooth clam (Callista chione) that Neanderthals had picked up and shaped into sharp tools roughly 90,000 years ago.

According to the new study, 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.

“Our results show that Neanderthals may have had a much closer connection to the sea than many scientists thought,” said Dr. Paola Villa, an adjoint curator at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Museum of Natural History.

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

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.

“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,” Dr. Villa said.

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

A collection of shell tools discovered in Grotta dei Moscerini in 1949. Image credit: Villa et al, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0226690.

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

To find out, Dr. Villa and her colleagues took a closer look at those tools.

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 on shells that had washed up on a sandy beach,” Dr. Villa said.

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 m (6.5-13 feet). Of course, they did not have scuba equipment,” Dr. Villa said.

The study was published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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