Grouping of crab claws against a black background showing different species and what they look like from the sides.

The researchers compared claws to identify the crabs eaten by Neanderthals and work out how big the crabs were.
Mariana Nabais/Catherine Dupont/Joao Zilhao

It’s past time to retire the primitive, lumbering cave dweller stereotype of Neanderthals. Archaeologists are helping the extinct branch of humanity get its proper due. A new study published in Frontiers in Environmental Archaeology this week found Neanderthals had a taste for roasted seafood.  

Archeologists studying the contents of a cave in Portugal found evidence of Neanderthals cooking and eating crabs 90,000 years ago. The spot is called Gruta de Figueira Brava, and it’s turned up stone tools, charcoal, shells and bones. The researchers found the remains of large adult brown crabs with patterns of damage, breakage and burn marks suggesting the animals were on the Neanderthal menu.

See also…

  • What a 51,000-year-old carved bone tells us about Neanderthals
  • Ancient string shows Neanderthals were into fiber technology, scientists say

“They were taking them in pools of the nearby rocky coast, targeting adult animals with an average carapace width of 16 cm. The animals were brought whole to the cave, where they were roasted on coals and then eaten,” lead author Mariana Nabais, of the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution in a Frontiers, said in a statement on Monday. 

Small remains of crab carapace and pincers look like lumpy brown bits with dark burn marks.Small remains of crab carapace and pincers look like lumpy brown bits with dark burn marks.Enlarge Image

Researchers found crab carapace and pincer fragments with black burns at the Neanderthal cave in Portugal.

Mariana Nabais/Catherine Dupont/Joao Zilhao

Some researchers have suggested early human ancestors may have evolved their big brains with an assist from a diet rich in aquatic animals. Frontiers said the discovery of cooked crabs in the Neanderthal diet “disproves the idea that eating marine foods gave early modern humans’ brains the competitive advantage.” 

Neanderthals died out around 40,000 years ago while homo sapiens — modern humans — developed and thrived. It seems like a lack of seafood wasn’t what was holding Neanderthals back. Scientists are still studying why Neanderthals went extinct. Climate change or diseases may have had a role.

The crab findings are the latest evidence that Neanderthals were more sophisticated than they’ve commonly been portrayed as grunting cave people. A 2017 study found a Neanderthal community had cared for a deaf and injured Neanderthal man into his old age. A 2020 study found evidence of fiber technology, and a 2021 study examined an artistically carved bone.

“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,” Nabais said.

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