Julien at A Very Remote Period Indeed has posted a brief note on what looks to be a very important discovery from southern Spain, where archaeologists investigating Neanderthal occupation levels at a Mousterian site called El Salt, dating back at least 60,000 years, have discovered and analysed fat residues and other remains that indicate Neanderthals were not only cooking animals such as wild goat and deer, but quite possibly fish and vegetable matter too. Should the results be confirmed, the site of El Salt, Alcoy in Alicante would represent far earlier evidence for the dietary complexity of Neanderthals than those who occupied Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar, and who were thought to have been eating mussels and dolphin around 25,000 years ago, after cooked remains were discovered in situ.
The difference between the two sites is that the latter dates to a time when the very last Neanderthals were thought to have been alive, c.24,500 years ago. It’s been suggested that the Neanderthals living on coastal Gibraltar had been pushed to the very edges of Europe by incoming anatomically modern humans (AMH), and that marine food was likely to have been eaten of necessity rather than choice, because by this time the harried Neanderthals were supposedly unable to acquire sufficient fresh meat on the hoof to cater for their daily needs.
However, this new study from El Salt puts Neanderthals in Mediterranean Europe 25,000 years beforehand, at a time when there were very few – if any – AMH present to act as competition for food resources, indicating that if the El Salt Neanderthals were eating fish and possibly cooking or heating plant or vegetable products in addition to deer and goat, they were probably doing so from gastronomic choice alone.
From another report on the same site, news comes of a previous discovery of what appear to be semi-circular walls constructed of stones, that appear to have been built by Neanderthals inside the cave, although no specific date is given. As we see from this (Spanish) report in Noticias Alcoy…
Por otra parte, el equipo de arqueólogos, capitaneados por Bertila Galván, catedrática de la Universidad de La Laguna, ha encontrado unos pequeños muros de forma semicircular en la cara exterior del yacimiento.
All of which makes it seem as though we’re dealing with some pretty sophisticated customers in these Neanderthals – I think walls have been found in other Palaeolithic caves, but why in this instance they were semicircular isn’t clear, and hopefully a detailed plan and layout of the cave will be illustrated at a later date.
Back to the main story, and those fish and plant remains – although there is no specific link to the research therein, I tracked down this paper, (PDF) again in Spanish, which I think refers to the published news article, but may instead refer to another recent excavation at the same site. Very broadly speaking, it details how the researchers went about analysing through organic chemistry the remains found in and around the hearths at specific layers, and for which this is the rather modest abstract:
Se presenta un estudio químico preliminar de los alcanos y de los ácidos grasos saturados aislados en muestras sedimentarias procedentes de distintos testimonios de combustión del yacimiento musteriense de El Salt, reconociéndose importantes diferencias entre ellos, lo que refleja distintos orígenes y la complejidad funcional del yacimiento.
(We present a preliminary chemical study of alkanes and saturated fatty acids isolated from sedimentary samples from different evidences of combustion in the Mousterian site of El Salt. Important differences are recognized between them, which reflects different origins and the functional complexity of the site.)
They go on to relate how they went about identifying the long and short chain fatty acids, which varied considerably from layer to layer at the site, with some at the lowest, Z6 (image at right) indicating animal fats not altered by heat processes, which may have been faeces with others above, X6 that had been altered by heat, indicating cooking. As far as I can tell, the authors speculate that level V6 contains traces of plant fatty acids, which were also modified by heat processes, indicating that a site originally thought to have been a seasonal hunting camp, was used for different purposes over the period of its occupation. The presence of Pinus nigra was noted as being predominant,
This was gleaned from the conclusions at the end of the paper, but there is a great deal more detail of the specific chemical processes and analyses involved, and it may well be the case that I’ve omitted some important details from earlier in the paper. The presence of mammoth and salmon is also suggested, but I don’t think these are as yet conclusively proven – the more recent find of fish bones may confirm the salmon theory, which I surmise would mean such fish were sourced from a river rather than the sea.
Comparison with the samples from the excavations was made with some nearby lichen, but the chemical signatures seemed to indicate that lichen wasn’t represented in the archaeological layers.
All a bit vague I’m afraid, but overall this story and related paper definitely hint at some quite sophisticated behaviour by Late Middle Palaeolithic Neanderthals, underscored by the likely presence of constructed Mousterian stone walls within the confines of the cave itself, and hopefully further reports from this unusual site will appear in due course.
image at top from Noticias Alcoy
Reference: Tras El Fuego de los Neandertales: Química Orgánica Aplicada al Estudio de las Estructuras de Combustión del Yacimiento Musteriense de El Salt (Alcoy, Alicante)* (PDF)
R.J. MARCH, R. DORTA PÉREZ, A. SISTIAGA GUTIÉRREZ, B. GALVÁN SANTOS, C.M. HERNÁNDEZ GÓMEZ, 2009(?)
* Este trabajo se realiza en el marco del proyecto I+D: HUM2004-01427/HIST “Tras las Huellas de Los Neandertales. El origen del poblamiento humano en los valles alcoyanos” y con la autorización de la Dirección General de Patrimonio Cultural Valenciano y Museos (Consejería de Cultura, Educación y Deportes, Generalitat Valenciana).
Congreso Iberico papers from the same conference – this paper is listed as ‘2’.