News in Archeology
Neanderthals Cooked and Ate Crabs 90,000 Years Ago  

Even cave dwellers loved seafood.

In addition to stone tools and charcoal, the site of Gruta De Figueira Brava, just south of Lisbon, contains rich deposits of shells and bones with much to tell us about the Neanderthals that lived there – especially about their meals.

About 90,000 years ago, these Neanderthals were cooking and eating crabs.

“At the end of the Last Interglacial, Neanderthals regularly harvested large brown crabs,” says Mariana Nabais of the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution. “They were taking them in pools of the nearby rocky coast, targeting adult animals with an average carapace width of 16 centimeters,” a little over 6 inches.

She and her team found that the crabs were mostly large adults, which would yield about 200 grams (almost half a pound) of meat. Crabs are evasive, but Neanderthals could have harvested brown crabs of this size from low tide pools in the summer.

“The animals were brought whole to the cave, where they were roasted on coals and then eaten,” says Nabais.

Nabais and her colleagues studied shellfish in undisturbed Paleolithic deposits that are overwhelmingly represented by brown crabs. By examining the patterns of damage on the shells and claws, they ruled out the involvement of other predators. There were no carnivore or rodent marks, and the patterns of breakage didn’t reflect predation by birds. In fact, the fracture patterns on the crabs at Gruta de Figueira Brava suggested they had been broken open for access to the meat.

Evidence also indicated to Nabais and her team that Neanderthals weren’t just harvesting the crabs: they were roasting them. The black burns on the shells, compared to studies of other mollusks heated at specific temperatures, suggested that the crabs were baked at temperatures typical for cooking.

“Our results add an extra nail to the coffin of the obsolete notion that Neanderthals were primitive cave dwellers who could barely scrape a living off scavenged big-game carcasses,” says Nabais, who added that eating crabs would have offered Neanderthals meaningful nutritional benefits.

the full study

Mariner’s Menu recipes for cooking 21st-century crabs 

Adapted from a news release from AAAS.

Lead photo: a Neanderthal hunter, as depicted in the Gallo-Romeins Museum Tongeren (an international public domain image/CC BY 4.0).

from the Spring 2023 issue of Coastwatch magazine