Neanderthal Shell Tool Production: Evidence from Middle Palaeolithic Italy and Greece

Abstract

The vast majority of tools recovered from Palaeolithic sites are made of stone varieties. Only rarely do non-lithic implements come to light, let alone tools produced on marine mollusc shell. Interestingly, a good number of shell implements made on Callista chione and Glycymeris sp. valves have been reported from 13 Middle Palaeolithic (Mousterian) sites in southern peninsular Europe. Of these, more than 300 specimens display evidence of deliberate edge retouch. They are all considered products of Neanderthals and date from ~110 ka BP to perhaps ~50 ka BP. In this paper, we review the evidence for Mousterian shell tool production in Italy and Greece—the only two countries in which such tools have been securely identified—and present experimental results obtained in the effort to understand the production process and typo-functional role(s) of the artefacts. We examine the general provisioning pattern of raw materials, as well as the typological, species-related and chronological data pertinent to the production of shell tools by Neanderthals. The data suggest that the Mousterian shell scrapers are a response to poor availability of lithic raw material in the areas of occurrence, and may be best described as an extension of chipped stone technologies to specific types of marine shell, their form defined by an existing mental template. As such, they constitute evidence for refined adaptation strategies and advanced provisioning of resources amongst Neanderthals, and may lend further support to the idea that these hominids displayed a degree of complex behaviour.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank the two reviewers, and particularly Prof. Jon Erlandson (University of Oregon), for their helpful contribution to this article. We should also thank Dr. Tom Higham (ORAU, Oxford) for critical reading of the manuscript, Dr. Andreas Darlas (Ministry of Culture, Greece) for providing further information on the worked shell from Kalamakia, and Dr. B. Giaccio (IGAG, Italy) for sharing unpublished data on the tephrostratigraphy of Cavallo Cave. Dr. E. Cristiani (Cambridge University, UK) shared the experimentation images and Dr. Andrè Carlo Colonese (IMF–CSIC, Spain) provided us with the bathymetric map of the Mediterranean Sea, part of which appears in Fig. 1; they are both kindly thanked. E.S. also wishes to thank the I.S.I.P.U. for access to the collections.

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Correspondence to Katerina Douka.

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Douka, K., Spinapolice, E.E. Neanderthal Shell Tool Production: Evidence from Middle Palaeolithic Italy and Greece. J World Prehist 25, 45–79 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10963-012-9056-z

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Keywords

  • Shell tools
  • Scrapers
  • Neanderthals
  • Marine shell
  • Callista chione
  • Middle Palaeolithic
  • Italy
  • Greece