Tool-making Neanderthals dove for the perfect clam shell

Jan. 16 (UPI) — New research suggests Neanderthals held their breath and dove underwater to retrieve the perfect clam shells for tool-making. The findings, published this week in the journal PLOS One, provide further evidence that Neanderthals were just as clever and adaptable as their human relatives.

The study relied on archaeological evidence collected by researchers in 1949: dozens of clam shells found in Grotta dei Moscerini, an Italian cave just steps from the Mediterranean Sea.

The excavation revealed 171 shells — belonging to a local species called the smooth clam, Callista chione — that had been sharpened into cutting tools some 90,000 years ago.

“The fact they were exploiting marine resources was something that was known,” lead study author Paola Villa, researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder, said in a news release. “But until recently, no one really paid much attention to it.”

Villa and her colleagues reexamined the shells to determine how Neanderthals went about collecting them and fashioning them into tools. They found two-thirds of the shells were covered in abrasions, evidence the shells had been washed on shore by waves before being collected from the beach.

However, the other third of the shells were slightly larger than the others and featured a shiny, smooth exterior. These shells, scientists theorize, were likely plucked from the seafloor while the clams were still alive.

“It’s quite possible that the Neanderthals were collecting shells as far down as 2 to 4 meters,” Villa said. “Of course, they did not have scuba equipment.”

The findings jive with an earlier study that found swimmer’s ear, bony growths caused by prolonged exposure to wet, cold conditions, were unusually common among Neanderthals — further evidence that the early human relatives were not afraid of the sea.

Often, depictions of Neanderthals paint the human relatives as bumbling brutes, eking out an existence through a combination of brawn, luck and desperation. A growing body of evidence, however, suggests Neanderthals were surprisingly inventive and adaptable, and capable of taking advantage of a variety of natural resources.

“People are beginning to understand that Neanderthals didn’t just hunt large mammals,” Villa said. “They also did things like freshwater fishing and even skin diving.”