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Neanderthals were as familiar with the sea as modern humans

Neanderthals were as familiar with the sea as modern humans

The Figueira Brava cave on the Portuguese coast was used as  a shelter by Neanderthal populations over the course of twenty  millennia. Credit: Pedro Souto.

ARC-supported researchers at The University of Adelaide are part of a research team that has uncovered new evidence about how our closest extinct human relatives, Neanderthals, consumed seafood.

Their study, which follows excavations and dating research undertaken at the Portuguese archaeological cave site of Figueira Brava, on the Atlantic coast near Lisbon, reveals that familiarity with the sea and its resources is much older and more widespread than previously thought.

The Australian researchers were focused on dating sediments contained within the site, using a technique known as optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating, which can determine when individual grains of quartz were last exposed to daylight.

‘This technique allows us to provide reliable ages for archaeological remains that are too old to be dated using radiocarbon,’ says Associate Professor Lee Arnold from The University of Adelaide’s School of Physical Sciences.

ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) recipient involved in the research, Dr Martina Demuro, said they were able to independently compare the OSL ages with a second set of ages obtained using a technique known as uranium-series dating, which is applicable to cave formations such as stalactites and stalagmites.

‘The two sets of results were in perfect agreement, providing strong evidence that Neanderthals occupied the cave during the Last Interglacial (between 86,000 and 106,000 years ago), when the Earth’s climate was similar to today,’ Dr Demuro says.

The Neanderthal occupants left abundant archaeological remains, including indicators of intensive fire use, quartz and flint tools, and food remains. The nature of the materials found has drawn into question the behavioural gap that had been thought to separate Neanderthals from contemporaneous Homo sapiens.


The site’s archaeology reveals that fishing and shell fishing were important components of the neanderthal subsistence economy, and researchers suggest that if habitual consumption of seafood played an important role in the development of cognitive abilities, then this applies to Neanderthals as well.


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