Neanderthals dived up to 13 feet underwater in search of clam shells

Neanderthals dived for clams and swam up to 13 feet underwater off the Italian coast 100,000 years ago

  • A total of 171 shells were found in an Italian cave inhabited by Neanderthals  
  • Almost a quarter were plucked from the seafloor by diving Neanderthals 
  • Experts say it is likely they dived up to 13 feet (four metres) underwater 
  • The rest of the shells were collected from beaches after being washed up

Neanderthals are often viewed as brutish, plodding beasts that were driven to extinction by the superior intellect of Homo sapiens. 

But new evidence shows an elegant streak to our early cousins, as a study reveals they sought out materials for tools from the seafloor, up to 13 feet underwater. 

Scientists found 171 shells dating back 100,000 years at an Italian cave and proved almost a quarter of them were lying on the seabed when they were plucked by a diving Neanderthal. 

The rest of the clamshells — three quarters of them — are thought to have washed up on the beach naturally during the Middle Palaeolithic period. 

Many of these shells, together with volcanic rock from the Mediterranean sea and shore, were fashioned into tools such as scrapers, the study found.  

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General morphology of retouched shell tools, Figs C-L are from the Pigorini Museum. A and B are taken from the study after being found in Grotta dei Moscerini. Almost a quarter of the shells in the cave were shiny and smooth on the exterior,signs they were taken from the seafloor 

The scientists from University of Colorado at Boulder say this proves Neanderthals had started pillaging the ocean for resources long before Homo sapiens took over.   

The findings come from discoveries made in Grotta dei Moscerini, a cave that sits ten feet above a beach in what is today the Latium region of central Italy.

Neanderthals also collected volcanic rock from the beach and coastal waters, according to the study published in the PLOS ONE journal.

The ancient humans are known to have used tools, but the extent to which they were able to exploit coastal resources has been less clear.

Dr Paola Villa at the University of Colorado Boulder said: ‘The fact they were exploiting marine resources was something that was known.

‘But until recently, no one really paid much attention to it.’

In this study, researchers explored artefacts from the cave, one of two Neanderthal sites in Italy with an abundance of hand-modified clam shells. 

The authors examined shells which had been often retouched to be used as scrapers.

The Neanderthals were a close human ancestor that mysteriously died out around 50,000 years ago.

The species lived in Africa with early humans for hundreds of millennia before moving across to Europe around 500,000 years ago.

They were later joined by humans taking the same journey some time in the past 100,000 years. 

The Neanderthals were a cousin species of humans but not a direct ancestor – the two species split from a common ancestor –  that perished around 50,000 years ago. Pictured is a Neanderthal museum exhibit

These were the original ‘cavemen’, historically thought to be dim-witted and brutish compared to modern humans.

In recent years though, and especially over the last decade, it has become increasingly apparent we’ve been selling Neanderthals short.

A growing body of evidence points to a more sophisticated and multi-talented kind of ‘caveman’ than anyone thought possible.

It now seems likely that Neanderthals buried their dead with the concept of an afterlife in mind.

Additionally, their diets and behaviour were surprisingly flexible.

They used body art such as pigments and beads, and they were the very first artists, with Neanderthal cave art (and symbolism) in Spain apparently predating the earliest modern human art by some 20,000 years.

In the study by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder studied artefacts from the cave, one of two Neanderthal sites in Italy with an abundance of hand-modified clam shells (pictured, artist’;s impression of a Neanderthal-inhabited cave) 

They found that nearly three quarters of the Moscerini shell tools had opaque and slightly faded exteriors, as if they had been sanded down over time.

These features are consistent with what would happen if a shell washed up on a sandy beach and was repeatedly submerged beneath the tide. 

However, the others were shiny and smooth on the exterior, and tended to be larger. 

It is thought these were harvested directly from the sea floor and therefore were never eroded by lapsing waves.   

Dr Villa said: ‘It’s quite possible that the Neanderthals were collecting shells as far down as two to four metres.

‘Of course, they did not have Scuba equipment.’

A total of of 171 shells were found in an Italian cave called Grotta dei Moscerini which is known to have been inhabited by Neanderthals

In the same cave sediments, the authors also found abundant pumice stones likely used as abrading tools.

Researchers say the findings join a growing body of evidence that Neanderthals in Western Europe were in the practice of wading or diving into coastal waters to collect resources long before Homo sapiens brought these habits to the region.

The authors add: ‘Skin diving for shells or fresh water fishing in low waters was a common activity of Neanderthals.

‘Neanderthals also collected pumices erupted from volcanoes in the gulf of Naples and transported by sea to the beach.’

An earlier study also found ‘bony’ growths on the ears of a few Neanderthal skeletons.

These growths known as ‘swimmer’s ear’, can be found among aquatic sportsmen today. 

Surfer’s ear, or external auditory exostoses (EAE) as they are known medically, are abnormal growths of bone within the ear canal.

They are caused by repeated exposure to cold water and wind, which makes the bones surrounding the ear canal thicken to defend the inner ear.

Dr Villa said: ‘People are beginning to understand that Neanderthals didn’t just hunt large mammals.

‘They also did things like freshwater fishing and even skin diving.’


The timeline of human evolution can be traced back millions of years. Experts estimate that the family tree goes as such:

55 million years ago – First primitive primates evolve

15 million years ago – Hominidae (great apes) evolve from the ancestors of the gibbon

7 million years ago – First gorillas evolve. Later, chimp and human lineages diverge

A recreation of a Neanderthal man is pictured 

5.5 million years ago – Ardipithecus, early ‘proto-human’ shares traits with chimps and gorillas

4 million years ago – Ape like early humans, the Australopithecines appeared. They had brains no larger than a chimpanzee’s but other more human like features 

3.9-2.9 million years ago – Australoipithecus afarensis lived in Africa.  

2.7 million years ago – Paranthropus, lived in woods and had massive jaws for chewing  

2.6 million years ago – Hand axes become the first major technological innovation 

2.3 million years ago – Homo habilis first thought to have appeared in Africa

1.85 million years ago – First ‘modern’ hand emerges 

1.8 million years ago – Homo ergaster begins to appear in fossil record 

800,000 years ago – Early humans control fire and create hearths. Brain size increases rapidly

400,000 years ago – Neanderthals first begin to appear and spread across Europe and Asia

300,000 to 200,000 years ago – Homo sapiens – modern humans – appear in Africa

50,000 to 40,000 years ago – Modern humans reach Europe 

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