Neanderthals Cooked and Ate Crab 90,000 Years Ago, Researchers Say

Next time you go out to eat and splurge on some market-price crab, just know that Neanderthals were enjoying the same delicacy without the high price tag.

Researchers have found that Neanderthals in Portugal were roasting and eating crab at least 90,000 years ago, The New York Times reported on Tuesday. In a study published in the journal “Frontiers in Environmental Archaeology,” the team noted the discovery of charred crab legs and claws in a cave just outside of Lisbon.

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“You can immediately identify them on site as being crab claws, especially in Portugal, because we have a tradition of eating crabs a lot,” Mariana Nabais, one of the study’s authors, told the Times. “It was a big surprise, especially because when we were digging there, we still didn’t have that idea of Neanderthals actively eating shellfish.”

Within the cave site, called Gruta da Figueira Brava, the research team found 635 bits of crab shells, representing at least 33 individual crabs. Most of them were the same species of brown crab popular in Portugal today, where they’re served with roe and mustard. (Jury’s still out on whether the Neanderthals were enjoying those accoutrements as well.) And based on the size of the claws, the researchers determined that the crabs from long, long ago were larger than average, with about seven ounces of meat per crustacean.

Of course, other animals have historically eaten crabs as well. But the shells found in Gruta da Figueira Brava didn’t carry tooth marks or the shattering patterns seen after birds drop them on rocks. In fact, some of the shells were charred and blackened, leading researchers to say that they had been roasted, just like you might see on any restaurant menu today.

The idea of Neanderthals serving up an elegant meal of roasted crab is a bit at odds with the general depiction of them as, well, idiots. But the new study may help change the way people think of Neanderthals, imbuing them with more intelligence than they’re given credit for.

“We’ve always seen Neanderthals as like these brute cousins,” Nabais said. “Now, we know they were eating shellfish … which was something that people thought that they wouldn’t be capable of because they were a bit dumb.”

Neanderthals, then, may have been smarter—and way fancier—than we thought.

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