I am just about ready to head to Gibraltar, yes the British territory south of Spain, for the Calpe Conference "Redefining Neanderthals." I am excited to present my poster about Neanderthals eating snails as a fun conversation starter as researchers in the field begin discussing the likelihood that Neanderthals were more omnivorous than previously thought. In some of my other work, I have discussed that Neanderthals likely did not eat many insects because of the cold climate of Pleistocene Europe. Biodiversity is quite low in these regions, thus the available edible insects would be considerably lower here than other, more temperate regions. However, that is not to say they did not eat any invertebrates. It is important to remember that with the latitudinal gradient of biodiversity the variation is clinal; there are no clear-cut boundaries, only increases and decreases in frequencies. An especially appealing insect or invertebrate might be consumed seasonally, and I think snails make a good candidate for that. Today, snails are consumed in the highest numbers in France, Italy, and Spain. Many of the snails are imported into the country from heliciculture farms in other regions allowing for the year-round availability of this delicacy. In order to assess whether Neanderthals were partaking in such an exquisite food, we need to start paying more attention to the snail shells that are found at Neanderthal sites. The problem is that snails can be present at these sites for many reasons other than Neanderthal intervention; they could have naturally wandered there or they could have been brought there by other predators such as rodents. However, if the locale of the Neanderthal site would not be a natural place for snails to visit, or if there is no predatory damage to the shells, then maybe, just maybe, the best explanation is that the shells are refuse from a Neanderthal snack. I believe there is a good case for this at the site of Krapina, Croatia, although I need to look more closely at the shells for rodent damage. Better reports of snails as part of the faunal assemblages at Neanderthal sites will also help address this question, and I hope that by discussing this at the conference, this data will become more available.
Julie Lesnik received her PhD studying the role of termites in the diet of fossil hominins and has since started exploring insects as food more broadly.