Neanderthals were eating brain-expanding shellfish 150,000 years ago

Illustration for article titled Neanderthals were eating brain-expanding shellfish 150,000 years ago

Shellfish has a surprisingly important place in our evolutionary story. One theory says shellfish fueled the expansion of our brains, while another gives it credit for saving our species. Turns out Neanderthals liked shellfish just as much as we did.


Shellfish are a plentiful source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for higher brain function. To that end, it's been suggested that, without shellfish, we might never have developed the big brains that so fundamentally define our species. A rival theory argues that you can't find shellfish without big brains, because gathering them effectively requires complex knowledge of time, tides, and phases of the Moon.

Either way, shellfish have become intimately associated with what it means to be human, and it's even been argued that they became a species-saving food source about 160,000 years ago, when radical climate change reduced the entire human population to a few thousand people eking out an existence on the coast of South Africa. Shellfish is one of the few foodstuffs that actually thrive when temperatures go down.

Well, it now looks like we'll have to surrender "eating shellfish" as a uniquely human trait, along with pretty much everything we come up with as a supposedly uniquely human trait. Archaeologists have found clear evidence of Neanderthals eating shellfish in Spain's Bajondillo Cave, one of the preeminent sites for Neanderthal research. While study stone tool use, the archaeologists discovered the remains of lots of charred shellfish, primarily mussels. Whatever high level brainpower humans needed to find shellfish, Neanderthals must have had as well.

These ancient meals have been dated to 150,000 years ago, placing them right around the same time that the world's "last" humans were eating shellfish on the South African coast 164,000 years ago. Researcher Francisco Jimenez Espejo of the Spanish National Research Council observes:

"Many researchers argue that eating shellfish is one of the behaviours that define modern humans and to a certain extent an adaptive advantage that allowed homo sapiens to expand. But this investigation shows that at the same time as homo sapiens in southern Africa, homo neanderthalensis in the southern Iberian peninsula used the same resources."

Shellfish might quite literally be brain food. They might very well have saved our species from total extinction. But it looks like this is one buffet we're going to have to share with our Neanderthal cousins. And just when it looked like we could have one behavior to ourselves - I better not hear about any ancient Neanderthal blogging, is all I'm saying.

Via PLoS ONE. Image by FotoosVanRobin on Flickr.



This reminds me of one of my favorite crackpot theories, the Aquatic Ape Theory:


It posits that our sophisticated brains, our upright stature, our physiological differences from apes, and our physiological similarities to sea mammals derive from a time when our ancestors were semi-aquatic and spent most of our time swimming around and eating shellfish like a bunch of simian otters. This theory is particularly popular with dolphin-loving New Agers.