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Neanderthals were eating mussels, fish, seals 80K years ago

Scientists found evidence of Neanderthal seafood consumption, including cracked and burned crab legs, in a cave in Portugal. Photo by João Zilhão
Scientists found evidence of Neanderthal seafood consumption, including cracked and burned crab legs, in a cave in Portugal. Photo by João Zilhão

March 30 (UPI) -- Scientists have found evidence that Neanderthals were consuming mussels, fish, seals and other marine species at least 80,000 years ago. Researchers found the novel evidence in the cave of Figueira Brava in Portugal.

Researchers have previously hypothesized that early humans in Africa first gained advanced cognitive abilities by eating seafood rich in brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids.

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The latest findings -- published recently in the journal Science -- support a growing body of evidence suggesting Neanderthals were much more sophisticated than previously estimated.

Not only were Neanderthals living near the coast of the Mediterranean capable of taking advantage of marine food resources, but it's possible that they, too, benefited from the brain-enhancing powers of omega-3 fatty acids.

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"Among other influences, this could explain the early appearance of a culture of modern people that used symbolic artifacts, such as body painting with ochre, the use of ornaments or the decoration of containers made of ostrich eggs with geometric motifs," study co-author Dirk Hoffmann, geologist at the University of Göttingen in Germany, said in a news release. "Such behavior reflects human's capacity for abstract thought and communication through symbols, which also contributed to the emergence of more organized and complex societies of modern humans."

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Researchers used the uranium-thorium method to date stalagmite deposits in the cave. The dating efforts showed Neanderthals were consuming seafood between 86,000 and 106,000 years ago.

Today, the Figueira Brava cave is directly on the water, but when it was occupied by Neanderthals, the cave was more than a mile from the coast. Inside the cave, researchers found seal bones, mussel shells, cracked and burned crab legs and more.

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Scientists have previously found evidence that Neanderthals were producing cave art on the Iberian Peninsula at least 65,000 years ago. Painted shells have also been discovered a Neanderthal sites in the region.

"Consistent with rapidly accumulating evidence that Neanderthals possessed a fully symbolic material culture, the subsistence evidence reported here further questions the behavioral gap once thought to separate them from modern humans," scientists wrote in their paper.

If seafood consumption explains the growth in cognitive abilities among early human populations, then the latest research suggests the same logic should apply Neanderthals.

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