Mediterranean Neanderthals Went Diving for Their Tools

(CN) – Early Neanderthals used razor-sharp clam shells as tools – and dove to the ocean floors around what is now Italy to get them, according to a new study.

General morphology of shell tools retouched by Neanderthals. Note the finely chipped, sharpened edges. (Photo credit Villa et al., 2020)

The study, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, details how a team of researchers led by Paola Villa of the University of Colorado examined a series of artifacts from the caves of Grotta dei Moscerini in Italy, one of only two archaeological sites in the county containing large amounts of ancient Neanderthal tools. Many of the tools at this particular site, however, were hand-crafted from a single natural resource Neanderthals frequently relied upon: clam shells.

Researchers found when examining these 100,000-year-old shells – modified by Neanderthals to be used as sharp scrappers – that while most of the shells appeared to have rougher, more abrasive outside textures, many appeared smoother and maintained a sheen. Scientists believe the rougher shells came to Neanderthals by washing up on beaches, while the smoother shells were retrieved by Neanderthal divers directly from the seafloors surrounding Italy.

The study reports that Neanderthals likely took such extreme measures to collect shells from the seafloor because the underwater shells were stronger and more durable than the shells that washed up on beaches, and were therefore more valuable as tools.

“Gathering shells from the sea floor is more time-consuming than collecting specimens on the beach. However, shells gathered from the sea floor tend to be thicker than beached specimens and this may have been a reason for choosing them,” the study states.

Researchers believe Neanderthals in the Mediterranean began using clam shells as tools because of a shortage of stone and flint, which forced them to turn to more readily available materials. It is also possible the Neanderthals preferred using the shells, which have a sharp cutting edge that they may have found easier to reshape and maintain compared to the more stubborn edges of stone and flint materials.

Underwater clam shells were not the only natural resources Neanderthals used as tools. Researchers also found large collections of pumice stones, an abrasive type of stone made when water and volcanic lava combine. The Neanderthals used the stones – carried by ocean currents over 40 miles from what is now the Gulf of Naples – as scrapper tools.

The researchers say Neanderthals were far more creative and resourceful than previously thought. While many believed a reliance on tools came to the area with migrating Homo sapiens, the study suggests Neanderthals were braving the ocean floors for reliable tools long before Homo sapiens entered the picture.

Such activity, researchers say, is a testament to Neanderthals early ability to take advantage of their natural environments and their impressive cultural ingenuity.

“This research shows that the exploitation of submerged aquatic resources and the collection of pumices, common in the Upper Paleolithic, were part of the Neandertal behavioral repertoire well before the arrival of modern humans in Western Europe,” the study concludes. “The technical competence, capacity for innovation and broad knowledge of the environmental resources have a greater time depth among non-modern humans than commonly acknowledged.”

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