Journal of World Prehistory

, Volume 32, Issue 1, pp 33–72 | Cite as

Midden or Molehill: The Role of Coastal Adaptations in Human Evolution and Dispersal

  • Manuel WillEmail author
  • Andrew W. Kandel
  • Nicholas J. Conard


Coastal adaptations have become an important topic in discussions about the evolution and dispersal of Homo sapiens. However, the actual distribution and potential relevance of coastal adaptations (broadly, the use of coastal resources and settlement along shorelines) in these processes remains debated, as is the claim that Neanderthals exhibited similar behaviors. To assess both questions, we performed a systematic review comparing coastal adaptations of H. sapiens during the African Middle Stone Age (MSA) with those of contemporaneous Neanderthals during the European Middle Paleolithic. In both species, systematic use of marine resources and coastal landscapes constitutes a consistent behavioral signature over ~ 100,000 years (MIS 6–3) in several regions of Africa and Europe. We found more similarities than differences between Neanderthals and modern humans, with remaining disparities all in degree rather than kind. H. sapiens exploited a wider range of marine resources—particularly shellfish—more intensively. MSA shellfish-bearing sites are also more often associated with intense occupations on coastal landscapes, and more evidence of complex material culture such as shell beads. In terms of broader ramifications, Pleistocene coastal adaptations are best conceived of as an ‘add-on’ to previous adaptive strategies, complementing more frequently exploited inland resources and landscapes. Still, Neanderthals and modern humans increased their dietary breadth and quality, and added options for occupation and range expansion along coastlines. Potential evolutionary implications of these multi-generational behaviors include higher intakes of brain-selective nutrients as a basis for neurobiological changes connected to increased cognitive capacities, but also greater reproductive success, dispersal abilities and behavioral flexibility. Whether gradual differences between modern humans and Neanderthals stimulated different evolutionary trajectories is a question for future research.


Paleolithic archaeology Shellfish exploitation Marine resources Homo sapiens Neanderthals 



The manuscript has benefited from constructive criticisms by several anonymous reviewers and the contribution of many colleagues by stimulating discussion or sending primary literature, including Nuno Bicho, Robert Foley, Huw Groucutt, Jonathan Haws, Antonietta Jerardino, Katharine Kyriacou, Geeske Langejans, Chris Miller, John Parkington, and Jose Ramos-Muñoz. We also thank Susan Mentzer, Chris Miller, Jayson Orton, and John Parkington for sharing photos on shellfish-bearing MSA sites. Financial resources were provided by the Senckenberg Research Institute, the research project ‘The Role of Culture in Early Expansions of Humans’ sponsored by the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and the German Science Foundation (DFG). Manuel Will acknowledges support by a Research Fellowship from Gonville and Caius College (Cambridge).

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Gonville and Caius CollegeUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK
  2. 2.PAVE Research Group, Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, Division of Biological AnthropologyUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK
  3. 3.Department of Early Prehistory and Quaternary EcologyUniversity of TübingenTübingenGermany
  4. 4.Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and HumanitiesROCEEH – The Role of Culture in Early Expansions of HumansTübingenGermany
  5. 5.Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Quaternary EcologyUniversity of TübingenTübingenGermany

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