Researchers have discovered for the first time that Neanderthals made tools from seashells, not just from those lying on the shore, but may have also gone diving to collect them from the seabed. According to a study, published in the journal PLOS on Thursday, Neanderthals, often thought to be the inferior cousins to modern humans, may have retrieved seashells to make tools from waters as deep as 13 feet.
Researchers, including those from the University of Colorado at Boulder in the US, assessed more than 170 shell tools found in an Italian cave. Based on patterned abrasions found on the surface of these shells, the scientists could distinguish between those which were picked up by the Neanderthals from the seashore, and those that were collected from under water.
Taking a closer look at the tools, they found that nearly three-quarters of the shells had opaque and slightly abraded exteriors, as if they had been sanded down over time, indicating that these had washed up on a sandy beach.
The rest of the shells, the study noted, had a shiny and smooth exterior. According to the scientists the shiny shells, which were also a little bit bigger, may have been plucked directly from the seafloor as live animals.
"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," said study co-author Paola Villa of the University of Colorado at Boulder.
"The fact they were exploiting marine resources was something that was known. But until recently, no one really paid much attention to it," Villa said. The cave site, Grotta dei Moscerini, located on the western coast of Italy, was discovered in the late 1930s, the study noted.
In 1949, archaeologists unearthed dozens of seashells in this place, and subsequent research revealed that the cave's Neanderthal inhabitants had sharpened or modified many of the shells into thin cutting tools, with some dating back to more than 90,000 years ago.
"At Moscerini 23.9 per cent of the specimens were gathered directly from the sea floor as live animals by skin diving Neanderthals," the scientists wrote in the study. According to Villa, the human cousins may have had a much closer connection to the sea than many scientists thought.
She said the Neanderthals used stone hammers to chip away at the shells, belonging to a local species of mollusk called the smooth clam, forming edges that would have stayed thin and sharp for a long time.
"No matter how many times you retouch a clam shell, its cutting edge will remain very thin and sharp," Villa explained. The findings of the current study strengthens the hypothesis that some Neanderthal's may have known to swim.
An earlier study had identified bony growths on the ears of a few Neanderthal skeletons, the researchers said. These features, called "swimmer's ear," are seen even in modern-day humans who practice aquatic sports, the study noted.
Put together, the findings of the two studies add to the evidence that Neanderthals may have been as flexible and creative as their human relatives -- a contrast to their representation in popular culture as crude cave-dwelling people who lived by hunting or scavenging mammoths, the researchers said.