In a Portuguese cave beside the Atlantic Ocean, Neanderthals may have made brown crabs a menu mainstay.
Archaeologists have unearthed evidence that the early humans were cooking and eating crab meat 90,000 years ago, according to a study published Tuesday in Frontiers in Environmental Archaeology. The findings are just the latest of many to show Neanderthals as more advanced than the primitive human ancestors scientists once thought they were.
The team uncovered a variety of shellfish remnants at the cave site, called Gruta da Figueira Brava. These included bits of barnacles and sea urchins, but the majority were pieces of shells from brown crabs.
“You can immediately identify them on site as being crab claws, especially in Portugal, because we have a tradition of eating crabs a lot,” Mariana Nabais, an archaeologist at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution and lead study author, says to the New York Times’ Kate Golembiewski. “It was a big surprise, especially because when we were digging there, we still didn’t have that idea of Neanderthals actively eating shellfish.”
The team discovered 635 fragments from at least 33 individual crabs, per the Times. Analysis of the shells revealed their breakage was consistent with being harvested by tools, rather than dropped by birds or nibbled by rodents. They also showed evidence of being exposed to high heat, with some scorch marks indicating the crabs were roasted on hot coals.
Additionally, the crustaceans were larger than average, which suggests hunters likely targeted them for their size.
Scientists had assumed that, for a Neanderthal, consuming small prey like crabs would have been unproductive, given the small amount of meat it would offer. However, the study notes, crab meat is a good source of protein, vitamins and fat, and it could be collected reliably and with lower risk compared to larger animals. In the Neanderthals’ time, the cave was about a mile from the shore, and they could have harvested crabs from the rocky tide pools near the coast.
The findings also challenge another long-held assumption—that the brain-building omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and shellfish helped Homo sapiens become smarter than our prehistoric counterparts. It appears that Neanderthals, too, had a “taste for seafood,” writes CNN’s Katie Hunt.
The differences between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens have long been a source of debate for scientists. “Over the years battle lines have been drawn over everything from the shape of Neanderthals’ noses and the depth of their trachea to the extent to which they interbred with modern humans,” wrote Smithsonian magazine’s Franz Lidz in 2019.
While some scientists focus on the differences between Neanderthals and humans, the Portuguese archaeologist João Zilhão—also an author of the new study—has remained a staunch supporter of a more advanced conception of Neanderthals that recognizes what they had in common with us. “Sure, there were physical differences between Neanderthals and modern humans … but Neanderthals were humans, and in terms of basic things that make us different, there was no difference,” he told Smithsonian magazine in 2019.
Fred Smith, an anthropologist at Illinois State University, agrees with the new study’s conclusions about the intelligence of Neanderthals, reports the Times. “Twenty, thirty years ago, basically, it was thought that Neanderthals were not capable, or at least not taking advantage of, using these resources,” he tells the publication. “So, we’ve come a long way.”
Nabais emphasizes this point: In a statement, she says, “Our results add an extra nail to the coffin of the obsolete notion that Neanderthals were primitive cave dwellers who could barely scrape a living off scavenged big-game carcasses.”