Tortoise bones found at the Qesem cave site in Israel show that ancient humans dined on tortoises in addition to the large game they hunted, a study in Quaternary Science Reviews reports.
The cave was first discovered during road construction in the fall of 2000. Since then, it has been a treasure trove for archaeologists looking into the daily lives of early humans.
Qesem was occupied at various times between 400,000 and 200,00 years ago, but then became covered over when a portion of the cave collapsed. It remained hidden until its discovery fifteen years ago.
During the most recent excavation, archaeologists found tortoise remains at all levels of the site. This suggests that the early humans who lived there ate the creatures throughout the history of the cave’s occupation.
The discovery is revealing because many previously believed that hunter-gatherers were primarily interested in larger game. While many of the animal bones in the cave are from larger game, such as fallow deer, the tortoise remains prove that ancient humans took advantage of smaller game as well.
“Until now, it was believed that Paleolithic humans hunted and ate mostly large game and vegetal material,” said study leader Ran Barkai, a member of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations, in a statement. “Our discovery adds a really rich human dimension — a culinary and therefore cultural depth to what we already know about these people.”
The remains also reveal there were three distinct ways that early humans enjoyed eating tortoises. They either broke the shell open by hammering them along the axis, roasted them on an open fire, or pried the shell open with a flint tool. While the animals may not have been a significant source of calories, they may have given our ancient ancestors a much appreciated break from their usual diet.
Tortoise hunting could have had a social meaning as well, the researchers say.
Hunters needed to be young and fast to pursue large game. But slow tortoises could be hunted by individuals unfit to track down deer, such as the elderly and the young, The Christian Science Monitor reports–perhaps representing an early form of division of labor.
This is not the first evidence that early humans ate tortoises, but it is the first time researchers have found signs of their preparation and cooking techniques.
The finding also adds to the debate about the foraging practices of early humans because it fails to support the Optimal Foraging Theory, which predicts that early foragers made their hunting decisions based on what would give them the most meat for the least amount of effort.
Though tortoises are much easier to catch than larger game, they yield little meat. The pursuit of smaller animals was likely for reasons other than cost-benefit calculation, such as diversity of diet and the simple pleasure of a tasty treat .