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The Past

Eating fish may have given Neanderthals brainpower

A new finding suggests Neanderthals were far from the big dumb brutes we make them out to be.

Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Goin’ Fishin’?

Key Takeaways
  • Scientists have found evidence that the Neanderthals were eating large amounts of fish long before modern humans got to Europe.
  • Previously, it was thought that only modern humans were fishing on a large scale.
  • The findings show that the Neanderthals were more like us than most people think.

New evidence from a cave in Portugal suggests the Neanderthals were eating fish before modern humans settled Europe. This finding not only changes our understanding of Neanderthals and how they lived but gives further evidence that they were more like us than we tend to imagine.

Nothing fishy about this

An international team explored a cave, known as Figueira Brava, and used uranium-thorium dating to determine the age of excavation layers. The use of the technique allowed the scientists to discover that the layer is between 86,000-106,000 years old, dating back to before modern humans came to Europe.

Since archaeologists have already found hundreds of fish bones alongside the remains of waterfowl, clams, and dolphins in the cave, the dating suggests that Neanderthals were eating a diverse aquatic diet long before fishing was thought to have been introduced to Europe. While previous investigations had shown that Neanderthals collected shells, including those of edible animals, and used them for making jewelry, this is the first strong evidence that they were actually eating marine animals.

Filipa Rodrigues, an author of the paper published in Science on the subject, told the New York Times: “We all have that image of the primitive Neanderthal that eats lots of meat… Now, we have this new perspective that they explored the marine resources like Homo sapiens did.”

Lawrence Krauss on Caveman Common Sense
What does eating fish have to do with anything?

Fish and other types of seafood contain Omega-3 fatty acids, which promotes the growth and development of brain tissue. It has been speculated that the eating of fish may have played a part in the development of early modern humans, giving them the boost in brainpower needed to create symbolic ideas and complex organization.

Just as eating fish is thought to have helped our immediate ancestors develop their capacity for abstract thought, this finding could explain how Neanderthals were able to function at a similar level. Contrary to popular opinion, Neanderthals were reasonably intelligent. They were able to create fire, had social structures, made cave paintings, built boats, turned seashells into jewelry, used language, and did many other things that anatomically modern humans did.

Perhaps a diet featuring fish made all of this possible.

Neanderthals were more human than most people think. This finding shows yet another activity previously thought to be done only by homo-sapiens was also done with regularity by others before our evolutionary cousins died out. While more research is needed to know if this was a widespread behavior or if the cultivation of this much seafood was limited to certain areas, the discovery changes what we thought we knew about our long gone and much maligned cousins.

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