New discovery at Tel Aviv University excavation of Qesem Cave reveals tortoises played a supplementary role in the diets of early humans 400,000 years ago.

Qesem Cave excavation reveals prehistoric man ate tortoises


Copyright: Qesem Cave expedition, Tel-Aviv University

(Tel Aviv University)

Turtles, or tortoises, are rarely consumed today, but a select few cultures, primarily East Asian, still consider turtle soup, made from the flesh of the turtle, a certain delicacy.  

According to a new discovery at Qesem Cave, near Tel Aviv, the site of many major findings from the late Lower Paleolithic period, they are not alone in their penchant for tortoise. 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, published today in Quaternary Science Reviews, led by Dr. Ruth Blasco of the Centro Nacional de Investigacion Sobre la Evolucion Humana (CENIEH), Spain, and TAU’s Institute of Archaeology together with Prof. Ran Barkai and Prof. Avi Gopher of TAU’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations, in collaboration with Dr. Jordi Rosell and Dr. Pablo Sanudo of Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV), Spain, Dr. Krister T. Smith and Dr. Lutz Christian Maul of Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum, Germany, provides direct evidence of the relatively broad range of food early Palaeolithic people feasted on – and of the "modern" tools and skills employed to prepare it.

"Until now, it was believed that Palaeolithic humans hunted and ate mostly large game and vegetal material," said Prof. Ran Barkai. "Our discovery adds a really rich human dimension – a culinary and therefore cultural depth to what we already know about these people."

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 calculus we discovered earlier, that the Qesem inhabitants also ate vegetables," said Prof. Barkai. "Now we can say they also ate tortoises, which were collected, butchered and roasted even though they do not provide as many calories as fallow deer, for example."

According to the study, Qesem inhabitants hunted mainly medium and large game – wild horses, fallow deer, cattle – zeroing in on their large quantities of fat and meat, which supplied the necessary calories. Moreover, it was until recently commonly believed that only Homo sapiens enjoyed a broad diet of vegetables and animals, large and small. However, evidence of the depreciation of small animals over time – this discovery included – begs otherwise.

"In some cases in history, we know that tortoises, slow-moving animals, were used as a ‘preserved’ or ‘canned’ food," said Prof. Barkai. "But maybe the inhabitants of Qesem were simply maximizing their local resources. Either way, this discovery adds an important new dimension to the knowhow, capabilities and perhaps taste preferences of these people."

According to Prof. Gopher, the new evidence also raises possibilities concerning the division of labor at Qesem Cave. "Which part of the group found and collected the tortoises?" explained Prof. Gopher. "Maybe members who were not otherwise involved in hunting large game, who could manage the low-handling costs of these reptiles – perhaps the elderly or children.

"According to the marks,"said. Prof. Barkai, "most of the turtles were roasted in the shell. In other cases, their shells were broken and then butchered using flint tools. The humans clearly used fire to roast the turtles. Of course they were focused on larger game, but they also used supplementary sources – tortoises – which were in the vicinity."

The researchers are currently examining bird bones recently discovered at Qesem Cave.