Tel Aviv University researchers, in collaboration with scholars from Spain and Germany, have uncovered evidence of turtle specimens at the 400,000-year-old site, indicating that early man enjoyed eating turtles in addition to large game and vegetal material. The research provides direct evidence of the relatively broad diet of early Paleolithic people — and of the “modern” tools and skills employed to prepare it.
“Until now, it was believed that Paleolithic humans hunted and ate mostly large game and vegetal material,” said Prof. Barkai. “Our discovery adds a really rich human dimension — a culinary and therefore cultural depth to what we already know about these people.”
It’s unclear why researchers previously thought that. Surely it is safe to assume that ancient humans ate whatever they could gather or catch, and that the harvesting of smaller, less dangerous species was principally the job of women and children.
The research team discovered tortoise specimens strewn all over the cave at different levels, indicating that they were consumed over the entire course of the early human 200,000-year inhabitation. Once exhumed, the bones revealed striking marks that reflected the methods the early humans used to process and eat the turtles.
“We know by the dental evidence we discovered earlier that the Qesem inhabitants ate vegetal food,” said Prof. Barkai. “Now we can say they also ate tortoises, which were collected, butchered and roasted, even though they don’t provide as many calories as fallow deer, for example.”
According to the study, Qesem inhabitants hunted mainly medium and large game such as wild horses, fallow deer and cattle. This diet provided large quantities of fat and meat, which supplied the calories necessary for human survival. Until recently, it was believed that only the later Homo sapiens enjoyed a broad diet of vegetables and large and small animals. But evidence found at the cave of the exploitation of small animals over time, this discovery included, suggests otherwise. More.
To what extent is our picture of prehistoric life so dominated by dramatic visions of “the hunt” for large hoofed animals (caves of Lascaux) that we don’t pause to remember that such kills may have been few and far between, as opposed to a usual diet of roots, berries, small mammals, fish, non-poisonous reptiles and amphibians, and insects?
Pos-Darwinista tells us that “Modern humans in North Brazil eat turtles: very very delicious!!!” Native peoples of northern Canada harvest turtles for the table too.
The researchers make an interesting point: Turtles, being slow moving, could be seen as a prehistoric form of canned goods, easily kept alive until needed for food.
See also: Human evolution, the skinny
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Here’s the abstract:
Dietary reconstructions can offer an improved perspective on human capacities of adaptation to the environment. New methodological approaches and analytical techniques have led to a theoretical framework for understanding how human groups used and adapted to their local environment. Faunal remains provide an important potential source of dietary information and allow study of behavioural variation and its evolutionary significance. Interest in determining how hominids filled the gaps in large prey availability with small game or what role small game played in pre-Upper Palaeolithic societies is an area of active research. Some of this work has focused on tortoises because they represent an important combination of edible and non-edible resources that are easy to collect if available. The exploitation of these slow-moving animals features prominently in prey choice models because the low handling costs of these reptiles make up for their small body size. Here, we present new taphonomic data from two tortoise assemblages extracted from the lower sequence of the Middle Pleistocene site of Qesem Cave, Israel (420-300 ka), with the aim of assessing the socio-economic factors that may have led to the inclusion of this type of resource in the human diets. We show that hominid damage on large tortoise specimens from Qesem Cave is not unusual and that evidence such as cut marks, percussion marks and consistent patterns of burning suggests established sequences of processing, including cooking in the shell, defleshing, and direct percussion to access the visceral content. These matters make it possible not only to assess the potential role of tortoises as prey, but also to evaluate collecting behaviour in the resource acquisition systems and eco-social strategies at the Acheulo-Yabrudian Cultural Complex (AYCC) in the southern Levant. (paywall) – Ruth Blasco, Jordi Rosell, Krister T. Smith, Lutz Christian Maul, Pablo Sañudo, Ran Barkai, Avi Gopher. Tortoises as a dietary supplement: A view from the Middle Pleistocene site of Qesem Cave, Israel. Quaternary Science Reviews, 2016; 133: 165 DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2015.12.006