Researchers at the Nerja Caves have revealed that they have found evidence that the early cave dwellers had whale meat as part of their diet.

An international team of scientists working at the Nerja Caves have found small barnacles, dated as being between 13,500 and 14,500 years old. These barnacles, live on the skin of whales so scientists have concluded that this is the earliest evidence of the use of cetaceans in European prehistory.

Between 13,500 and 14,500 years ago, the settlement of hunters and fishermen in Nerja were separated from the coast by about 2.5 miles. To survive, the community walked for hours to the shore and fished there and moved their prey, such as dolphins and seals, to the cave where they lived. However, when they found the remains of whales, they had to change their strategy, as shown by a study published in the journal Quaternary International.

“They took pieces of meat, fat and skin to the cave, but left the bones of the animal on the beach,” says Jesus F. Jorda, researcher at the Department of Prehistory and Archaeology at UNED and one of the authors of the study. Reserachers have discovered remains of hundreds of barnacles, small crustaceans that live on the skin of whales.

“Being closely associated with the edible parts of the whale and finding many of them burned inside the cave dwelling, the presence of these crustaceans provides indirect evidence of the oldest whale consumption in European prehistory,” adds Stephen Alvarez -Fernandez, a researcher at the University of Salamanca and the paper’s lead author.

The crustaceans found belong to two different genres – Tubicinella major and Cetopirus – and many of them were completely burned, indicating that humans of that time roasted the whale meat to eat.

Their analysis indicates that they would have been living on the skin of an Eubalaena Australis whale , typical of the waters of the southern hemisphere, which “confirms the significant drop in temperature of sea water at that time,” says Álvarez-Fernández . This cooling of ocean waters in both hemispheres allowed the whales to cross the equator and into the Mediterranean, ending beached at Nerja.

In addition, there is the fact that scientists have never before found these two crustacean species together in a prehistoric timescale.

Scientists from a number of different institutions have taken part in the research, including UNED and the University of Salamanca, the University of Valencia, Complutense University of Madrid, the National University of Australia, the Geological Survey of Spain, the National Museum of Natural Sciences (CSIC ) and the Museum of Natural History in Paris (France).

The picture is of the remains of the barnacles found. Courtesty of : Esteban Álvarez-Fernández and René-Pierre Carriol.

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