Neanderthals Collected Clam Shells From the Bottom of the Sea to Make Tools

Neanderthals living on the coast of what is now Italy dived underwater to collect shells which they then made into tools, research has revealed.

For a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, a team of scientists explored a cave known as Grotta dei Moscerini—one of two Italian Neandertal archaeological sites which feature a number of modified shells belonging to the clam species Callista chione that date back to around 100,000 years ago.

Many of the shells found at this site had been modified to be used as scraper tools. The team—led by Paola Villa from the University of Colorado—examined 171 of these modified shells in order to understand more about these objects.

Previously, it was thought that the shells had been collected on the beach after the death of the clams. However, based on the team's analysis—which looked the state of preservation of the shells—they concluded that nearly a quarter of the shells had been collected underwater from the seafloor.

"We can prove that at Moscerini about 40 shell tools were gathered directly from the seafloor as live animals by skin-diving Neanderthals and 127 were collected on the beach," Villa told Newsweek.

While Neanderthals were known to have used tools, experts are not so clear on the extent to which they were able to exploit the coastal resources available to them.

Nevertheless, there is archaeological data from Italy, France and Spain, for example, indicating that shell fishing and fresh water fishing were common Neanderthal activities.

"The results were surprising but they also confirm an anatomical study by anthropologist Erik Trinkaus," Villa said. "According to him, bony growths on the external ear canal—called the swimmer's ear—are quite common on Neanderthal remains. These bony growths are correlated with habitual exposure to cold water. The data from Moscerini supports Trinkaus' idea that Neanderthals frequently exploited aquatic resources."

Neanderthal clam shells
Modified shell tools. Villa et al., 2020

The researchers also found evidence at the cave site indicating that Neanderthals there collected volcanic pumice stones which may have been carried to the site by ocean currents from erupting volcanoes in the Gulf of Naples—located around 40 miles to the south. It is likely that the Neanderthals used these stones as abrading tools, according to the researchers.

The latest findings add to the evidence that Neanderthals practiced diving or wading in coastal waters in this region to collect resources long before Homo sapiens did the same.

"We prove that the exploitation of aquatic resources and the collection of pumices—common in the Upper Paleolithic—were part of Neanderthal behavior well before the arrival of modern humans in Western Europe," Villa said. "Neanderthals had the technical competence, capacity for innovation and broad knowledge of environmental resources that are generally attributed to modern humans only."

Correction, January 21, 2020: A previous version of this article said 167 stone tools were collected.