Neanderthal catch of the day – seal

Press release - 22 September 2008

New evidence shows that Neanderthal diets were more like those of early modern humans than previously thought

Neanderthals were more sophisticated than their traditional caveman image would suggest, eating seafood as well as meat from the animals they hunted or scavenged. Scientists at the Natural History Museum, working as part of the Gibraltar Caves Project, have discovered that Neanderthals, like modern humans, foraged in coastal habitats to find sea foods such as shellfish and vulnerable seals.

Museum scientists and other experts excavated and examined material from two coastal caves on the eastern side of Gibraltar. They found marine mammal remains such as seal and dolphin, demonstrating that Homo sapiens were not the only ones to live off the sea. The two caves, Gorham’s and Vanguard, contain rich evidence of Neanderthal occupation covering more than 50,000 years.

‘Recent work on Neanderthals and the isotope signatures in their bones suggested they were heavily dependent on meat from land animals such as horse and deer, whereas early modern humans had a much broader diet, including birds and fish,’ explained Professor Chris Stringer, palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum. ‘We already knew that Neanderthals were heavily carnivorous from sites further north in Europe, but now we have evidence that along the Mediterranean coast they also exploited marine foods, in a similar way to modern humans.’

The caves also contain hearths and flint stone tools, as well as butchered land mammals such as ibex (Capra ibex), red deer (Cervus elaphus), wild boar (Sus scrofa), bear (Ursus arctos) and rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). But there was also clear evidence that Neanderthals ate marine mammals such as the monk seal (Monachus monachus) and dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), and probably also fish such as sea bream. Remains of shellfish such the mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis) were also discovered. Over half the animal bones belonged to young mammals, suggesting the Neanderthals were hunting on a seasonal basis.

‘The seal bones we found have clear cut marks and peeling, from Neanderthals bending and ripping them from the body to remove meat and marrow. The mussel shells had been warmed on a fire to open them,’ said Professor Stringer. ‘Since we have recurrent evidence from several excavated levels over 30,000 years old in the two Gibraltar sites, we can say that eating seafood was not a rare behaviour for Neanderthals during the Middle Palaeolithic. We have found evidence that they knew the geographic distribution and behaviour of their prey, suggesting they were hunting on a seasonal basis.’


Notes for editors

  • Neanderthal Exploitation of Marine Mammals in Gibraltar is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
  • The Gibraltar Caves Project was a collaboration between several Institutes, including the Natural History Museum, London, the Gibraltar Museum, and the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, Madrid.
  • Fossil material was collected from a number of excavation sites in Vanguard and Gorham’s Caves in Gibraltar. Each cave has a 35 –metre-high entrance, and extensive unexcavated deposits.
  • The earliest evidence for human use of marine resources and coastal habitats was about 165,000 years ago in South Africa.
  • Today the monk seal is found throughout the Mediterranean and Black seas and the waters along the northwestern coast of North Africa. It is, however, only a sporadic visitor to Gibraltar today and prefers rocky coastlines with cave and grottos.
  • The bottlenose dolphin is found today primarily in the coastal and inshore regions of tropical and temperate waters. It is found around Gibraltar, although not as often as the common dolphin.
  • Selected by Time Out in 2007 as one of the Seven Wonders of London, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries.

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Claire Gilby, Press Officer, Natural History Museum
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