You used to call me on my shell phone

Neanderthals shared 99% of the DNA of Homo sapiens, but the 1% difference in DNA has led to the species being characterised as a somewhat inferior species to Homo sapiens. A recent discovery however, now indicates that Neanderthals may have been able to swim, and even dive.  

A new discovery validates the claim that Neanderthals were in fact capable swimmers. Grotta dei Moscerini, a cave in Italy that was once home for a group of Neanderthals, was previously excavated in 1949, but recent study has concluded that the seashells found there might have come from the seafloor as far as 4 meters deep, meaning the Neanderthals had to swim underwater to collect them. The cave had over 170 handmade cutting tools dating from 100,000 years ago, which the inhabiting Neanderthals shaped from a species of smooth clam that can still be found in the area today. 

An archaeologist from the University of Colorado, Paola Villa, a shell specialist Carlo Smriglio, and colleagues analysed these tools from museum collections. They realised dead clam shells that washed up on the shore look different from live ones collected from the seafloor. The former are opaque, abraded, crusty and marked from being knocked against pebbles, while the latter are smooth and shiny. Out of all the shells found in the Neanderthals’ dwelling, one quarter of them had a shiny exterior, suggesting they were gathered from the seafloor. 

The previous understanding was that Neanderthals were primarily hunters of large mammals. They were the apex predator of their time, and hunted deer, wild boar, ibex and occasionally woolly mammoth. Sometimes they’d collect mussels and fish in shallow waters, however there has been little evidence of swimming until now. 

Like our ancestors, Neanderthals also originated in Africa, but migrated and spread across Eurasia. The last of this ancient species is believed to have died out 37,000 years ago. Archaeologist Francesca Romagnoli applauded Villa’s research, and said this provides evidence of the complex behaviours of Neanderthals, as well as their ability to adapt and exploit the resources in their surroundings. It turns out Neanderthals weren’t so different from us after all. 


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Erica Thajeb