Fruits of the sea
The origins of marine resource consumption by humans have been much debated. Zilhão et al. present evidence that, in Atlantic Iberia’s coastal settings, Middle Paleolithic Neanderthals exploited marine resources at a scale on par with the modern human–associated Middle Stone Age of southern Africa (see the Perspective by Will). Excavations at the Figueira Brava site on Portugal’s Atlantic coast reveal shell middens rich in the remains of mollusks, crabs, and fish, as well as terrestrial food items. Familiarity with the sea and its resources may thus have been widespread for residents there in the Middle Paleolithic. The Figueira Brava Neanderthals also exploited stone pine nuts in a way akin to that previously identified in the Holocene of Iberia. These findings add broader dimensions to our understanding of the role of aquatic resources in the subsistence of Paleolithic humans.
A record of the regular exploitation of aquatic foods has been lacking in Neandertal Europe. By contrast, marine resources feature prominently—alongside personal ornaments, body painting, and linear-geometric drawings—in the archeology of Last Interglacial Africa. A competitive advantage scenario of human origins is that the habitual consumption of aquatic foods and the fatty acids they contain, which favor brain development, underpins the acquisition of modernity in cognition and behavior. The resulting innovations in technology, demographic growth, and enhanced prosociality would therefore explain modern humans’ out-of-Africa expansion with regard to both dispersal process (along coastal routes and to southern Asia first) and outcome (the demise of coeval non-modern Eurasians). A corollary of this view is that the paucity of marine foods at Neandertal coastal sites is a genuine reflection of their subsistence behavior.
Europe’s Atlantic façade boasts resource-rich coastal waters comparable to those of South Africa. From Scandinavia to France, however, any evidence for the Last Interglacial exploitation of marine resources would have been lost to subsequent icecap advances and postglacial submersion of the wide continental platform. Conversely, the very steep shelf off Arrábida, a littoral mountain range 30 km south of Lisbon, Portugal, has enabled extant and submerged shorelines to be preserved short distances apart. Gruta da Figueira Brava, one of Arrábida’s erosion-protected, seaside cave sites, provides a singular opportunity to investigate whether any considerable Last Interglacial accumulations of marine food debris ever existed in Europe.
The Figueira Brava archeological sequence dates to ~86 to 106 thousand years ago (kya). Throughout, there is evidence of a settlement-subsistence system based on regular exploitation of all animal resources offered by the coastal environment: large crabs, marine mollusks, fish, marine birds and mammals, tortoise, waterfowl, and hoofed game. The composition of the food basket and the structure of the deposit vary as a function of the following: (i) sea-level oscillation, with implications for the ecosystems that were preferentially targeted; (ii) frequency of human occupation; (iii) site-formation process; and (iv) position of the archeological trenches relative to the changing configuration of the inhabited space. The initial occupations (phases FB1 and FB2), when the sea was closer to the cave (~750 m), include shell-supported accumulations. These occupations were followed by a period of infrequent use (phase FB3) and a final phase (FB4), when the shoreline was ~2000 m away but shellfish were again discarded at the site in substantial amounts. The density of marine food remains compares well to that seen in the regional Mesolithic and the Last Interglacial of South Africa and the Maghreb and exceeds the latter two in the case of crabs and fish. Figueira Brava also documents a stone pine economy featuring seasonal harvesting and on-site storage of the cones for deferred consumption of the nuts. The stability of this subsistence system suggests successful long-term adaptation.
Figueira Brava provides the first record of significant marine resource consumption among Europe’s Neandertals. Taphonomic and site-preservation biases explain why this kind of record has not been previously found in Europe on the scale seen among coeval African populations. Consistent with rapidly accumulating evidence that Neandertals possessed a fully symbolic material culture, the subsistence evidence reported here further questions the behavioral gap once thought to separate them from modern humans.