Neanderthals and Marine Resources

As both Kambiz and Hawks have mentioned, a new paper is out in PNAS on the subject of Neanderthal exploitation of marine resources (something I touch on here).


Both are excellent discussions of the paper, so I won’t say too much about it. A couple of things do stand out. As Hawks points out:

It’s often hard to explain to people why it takes so long for us to learn new things about Neandertals, and why it’s so exciting that today’s genetic information is progressing so rapidly.

IMHO, it is harder learning about Neanderthals than any other hominid – this despite the fact that we have quite a lot of Neanderthal material to work with – both in terms of skeletons and archaeological sites. Old prejudices die hard…
Finally, is it me or has there been a mini-explosion of Neanderthal related research lately?

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7 Responses

  1. I don’t think it’s just you, or perhaps it’s just that new research is more accessible to the general public these days. I’ve been particularly interested in Neanderthals since I was a kid, and in the past six months there’s been a lot of new material to read. I read two reports on this paper yesterday, at LiveScience and Hawks’, plus an older Nat. Geo. article I hadn’t seen before.
    People like me are fascinated by the missed possibilities with Neanderthals – so close to still being around, and what a different world it might be if there still were two kinds of humans inhabiting the planet. So the more we learn, and the more they seem to have been very much just like us, yet different, the more interesting that fantasy becomes.

  2. I’m not subscribed to PNAS,so can’t view the paper. Journalistic reports I’ve seen (Nat.Geo, New Scientist, BBC etc)seem to be implying that the neanderthals would probably take mostly infant seals. Is this the case, from the paper? The BBC illustrates the piece with an adult mandible (from NHM) and zooarchaeology.net has a phalanx with the prox end missing. If they were taking wild boar, I’d have thought that sneaking up and braining (or spearing) a dozing adult seal would be well within their capabilities!

  3. The abstract which I had access to seemed to be implying that they would have had to be out in the water, something I had read elsewhere that Neanderthals couldn’t possibly do. But I had always wondered if Neanderthals didn’t make some primitive type of watercraft, since they apparently were on both sides of the Mediterranean, in Iberia and in Northwest Africa. Apparently macaque monkeys managed to cross there at some point. Surely they didn’t have boats. So, maybe Neanderthals made a primitive sort of raft, or sat or small logs? Homo erectus must have done something similar, since they made it to Flores island, in Indonesia, which was apparently always an island. Maybe archaic humans were more clever than we usually give them credit for.

  4. Dave and Diana – I have the paper and would be mopre than happy to send it your way. Send me an email…Anybody else that needs it can send me an email as well.

  5. I haven’t even seen the abstract, just the write-ups, and I’m no paleoanthropologist, but, speculating wildly, how could they not figure out how to float themselves on water? They made tools and weapons, they would inevitably stumble on the fact that wood floats and can be clung to at the very least. But you certainly don’t have to go into the water to successfully hunt seals.
    Around here, seals whelp on ice, and for 200+ years, people have been going out on the ice and braining them with clubs. For several thousand years, people of the Arctic have been patiently waiting for seals to come up to breathe and killing them with stabby things – harpoons.
    I don’t know where Mediterranean seals of the time bore their young, but it seems likely that would be a season when it would be convenient to hunt them, in which case there would be no obvious reason to confine themselves to pups.

  6. Dave, I just reread the article and although mention is made of a juvenile monk seal scapula with cutmarks found at Vanguard Cave, the article does mention adult seals at both Vanguard and Gorham’s Cave. Monk seals, being mammals, do need to haul out to mate and give birth so I don’t really see a need to postulate watercraft. A number of groups around the world do quite well wading out into the water with a spear, some even go far enough out to swim – which makes me wonder if Neanderthals knew how to swim?

  7. Thanks for the replies! I wonder where the journalists got the “juvenile seals” bit from? Certainly the dolphin vertebra on New Scientist.com is un-fused. Interesting speculation about swimming Neanderthals. I would suspect that they wouldn’t be as good as us (well, I can’t swim, myself) with their more compact bodies and relatively heavier bones, maybe they wouldn’t be as buoyant? But with their cold-adaptations, perhaps they had a good thick layer of subcutaneous fat (which I also have, sadly).
    I’ll email you about the paper. Thanks again.

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