Shellfish gathering, paleoanthropological strawman

5 minute read

We have known for many years that Lower Paleolithic people were using shellfish, fish, and littoral resources at sites across the Old World, from Trinil Joordens:Trinil:2009, Koobi Fora Braun:aquatic:2010, Gesher Benot Ya’aqov Alperson-Afil:2009, and elsewhere. I’ve discussed the evidence several times (maybe most usefully in “The shells of Trinil”). As I wrote last year (“Fishy story at Koobi Fora”):

Aquatic animals aren't important because of their sheer numbers, but because they tell us about the flexibility of foraging behavior. Living hunter-gatherers eat turtles and reptiles when they can, and because they are usually small food packages, they often eat them where they find them instead of returning to a base camp first. Hunter-gatherers are flexible in what they eat and where they eat it. FwJj20 is showing at least a substantial taxonomic flexibility in the meat-eating of early Oldowan hunters.

So why do we keep seeing stories that make shellfish consumption look like news when it’s done by Neandertals, MSA Africans, or anybody else?

I’m writing about this today because of a new paper in PLoS ONE by Miguel Corts-Snchez and colleagues, reporting on the shellfish remains in Bajondillo Cave, Spain Cortes-Sanchez:Bajondillo:2011.

Shellfish collecting has been well characterized in some Mousterian contexts. Mary Stiner treated it systematically in her 1993 monograph, Honor Among Thieves, which is part of the graduate education of most young Paleolithic archaeologists. Stiner spent a lot of text quantifying shellfish use and gave a good discussion of the biases that make archaeologists find less evidence of shellfish consumption than there probably was.

Most important, when you can walk along a shoreline and nosh shells, you’re not very likely to haul many of them back to a cave several kilometers from the shore. In the Holocene, we find lots of archaeological localities where people were systematically collecting many shells and cooking them for large groups. For this purpose, the people carried baskets or sacks of shellfish for a good distance, and after they were consumed, the shells sometimes built up into large trash piles, or middens. We don’t see shell middens in Mousterian or MSA contexts, but then we see very little of that kind of behavior with any kind of resources in MSA or Mousterian times. Here’s what I wrote in 2008 (“Neandertal diet was not dolphin safe”):

[I]t was hard to understand the excitement that accompanied last year's paper by Curtis Marean and colleagues (2007), who found evidence for shellfish exploitation at Pinnacle Point, South Africa. The press reported the result as if there were a shell midden, with abundant evidence for consumption. But actually the number of shells is fairly small -- all the shells from all the layers reported weigh less than a kilogram. That looks similar to the pattern of exploitation that Stiner had reported for the Neandertals at Moscarini, and more or less like the pattern at Vanguard and Gorham's Caves.

The African MSA-era site with the most direct evidence of shellfish exploitation is at Abdur, Eritrea, where the stone tools are found in an ancient shore terrace, presumably at the very place where shellfish exploitation was happening Walter:Eritrea:2000. That paper hinted at even earlier sites with similar evidence from Acheulean contexts along the Red Sea rift, where subsidence of the rift floor has left some ancient coral reefs exposed, Acheulean tools embedded within them. I should also point out indirect evidence on the basis of species abundance for human exploitation of giant clams in the Red Sea (“The ancient struggle for existence between humans and giant clams”).

In other words, archaeologists have found quite a lot of evidence of coastal resource use by early people, despite the steep biases against it. In the case of aquatic animal exploitation, they’ve got it as early as the Oldowan, 1.95 million years ago Braun:aquatic:2010.

Corts-Snchez and colleagues Cortes-Sanchez:Bajondillo:2011 add detail to this record but don’t really broaden the picture. Mousterian shellfish acquisition around 150,000 years ago, well before the last interglacial, is earlier than many well-known instances of MSA shellfish utilization. But we know that much earlier humans were using these coastal resources, so it’s hardly news. As at other sites, the mollusc remains are not very dense: a minimum of 16 shells in one layer, 66 shells in another, 80 in a third. If I were going to make a story out of it, I would direct more attention to the pearl, first I’ve ever heard of in a Neandertal site.

More important is the paper’s demonstration that humans actually processed the shells. Corts-Snchez and colleagues contrast the condition of continental and marine molluscs in the same levels, to show the systematic breakage and burning of the marine species:

[A]lmost all of the marine mollusks exhibit intensive mechanical fracturing, with sharp edges on their shells suggestive of an absence of post-depositional transport, and very few appear complete (i.e., barely 7% at Bj19). Such fracturing, coupled with the absence of shells eroded by water, indicates that the marine mollusks from Bajondillo Cave, and in particular those from Bj19 do not represent background fauna from the nearby beach, a phenomenon that has recurrently caused problems in the association of early Middle Paleolithic shellfish deposits from the Mediterranean with paleo-human activities. In addition, a substantial percentage of the mussels exhibit burning marks (Figure 4: 16). These are recorded on 48% of the adult specimens from Bj19, the young mussels never exhibiting such traces. Thermo-alterations suggest consumption rather than passive burning, given that in most cases only the outer portions of the shells appear carbonized and/or flaked. An indirect line of evidence supporting this same hypothesis is provided by five of the epibiont barnacle remains that fire not only detached from the mussel shells but that in that process were thoroughly carbonized, as is the case of the four specimens from Bj18 (Figure 4: 8,11) or else calcined, as happens with the specimen from Bj19 (Figure 4: 12).

I appreciate the paper’s list of 24 previously-published Neandertal sites that present mollusc remains. It would be useful to compile a broader list including MSA sites. Personally, I hope to never read again a headline about how surprising or significant was shellfish use by early humans.