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article imageNeanderthals ate seals and dolphins

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     Sep 23, 2008 in Science
Neanderthals are often portrayed as knuckle-dragging brutes, but new discoveries are more and more pointing in other directions. One mystery that is currently fascinating scientists is the discovery that they ate seals and dolphins.
The Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, have long been regarded as senseless brutes, but the more we learn, the more it becomes clear that this is a fallacy. For a while, they were considered fairly recent ancestors of ours, but that is no longer the case either. Modern research has clearly shown that they are not ancestors of Homo sapiens and not descendants either. In fact, Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis are cousins. It is now clear that we share a common ancestor.
Since losing their status as our ancestors, the public has largely lost interest and sight of Neanderthals, but there are still some scientists who are interested and who are gradually unearthing more and more information about these fascinating beings, and they have already quite a history.
The first Neanderthal was discovered in 1833 in Engis, Belgium, by P.C. Schmerling. Later, in 1848, several fossilized remains have been discovered in Gibraltar, but after a short study, they remained forgotten in a museum for a long time.
The first really well-known fossil was discovered in 1856 in Neanderthal, Germany, whereas the first fairly complete skeleton was discovered in La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France, in 1908.
We know that Neanderthals had at least some type of industry, numerous stone tools were discovered in their immediate proximity. We even know that they buried their dead. Some have speculated that this indicates the start of religion. Newer evidence has shown that Neanderthals may have been more intelligent than modern man, since they made tools that were actually better in some ways than the ones our ancestors made.
Also fascinating about the Neanderthals is that they were somewhat smaller than us, but that their cranial capacity, 1500 to 1750 cm3, was actually substantially bigger than ours since Homo sapiens has an average cranial capacity of a mere 1350 cm3.
Although they may not have used clubs as modern man does in hunting baby seals, but Neanderthals seem to have hunted seals nevertheless. New Scientist reports that scientists have discovered seal bones showing signs of butchery in two caves in Gibraltar. Some dolphin remains have been found as well.
According to Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum, this strengthens the image of Neanderthals as intelligent and adaptable hunters. He was a member of the team that discovered and analysed the seal and dolphin bones.
"Neanderthals could not have been that stupid and dumb," he says. "These people probably had a pretty good knowledge of the seasons and when to go hunting."
Gorham's cave and Vanguard cave, the two caves overlooking the Atlantic Ocean where the bones were discovered, also contain signs of hearths, tool-making, and remains of molluscs, boars and bears. The bones of the seals and two species of dolphins remain a mystery however. According to Finlayson, the seal bones have cut marks that indicate that they were butchered. However, the dolphin bones do not show such signs. He speculates that this may indicate that the Neanderthals wanted them for their fat.
The biggest question is about how the Neanderthals acquired these animals. Obviously, seals and dolphins are very good swimmers, humanoids aren't. The scientists are speculating that the seals may have been hunted during the breeding season, when they are more likely to be found near land. The dolphins may have been beached dolphins that were easy to catch.
The variety of animals that were found in the caves, may be the answer to the question of why the Neanderthals in this region still survived when those living more inland were already long extinct.
"What I think this shows is that they had a mixed economy," Finlayson says. "If you had series of years with droughts and there was a shortage of deer or goats, you had fallbacks."
More about Neanderthal seals dolphins, Intelligent adaptable hunters, Tool-making
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