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Early Humans' Diet Included Roasted Tortoise Appetizers, Study Finds

Feb 02, 2016 03:34 PM EST

Prehistoric turtle soup, perhaps? Tel Aviv University archaeologists have found evidence suggesting early human cave-dwellers enjoyed roasted tortoises as an appetizer or side dish. 

In the latest study, Professor Ran Barkai and Dr. Ruth Blasco led a team of researchers in discovering 400,000-year-old tortoise shells and bones at a fossil site known as Qesem Cave near Tel Aviv, Israel. On many of the shells discovered, researchers found burn and cut marks, in addition to signs they were cracked open using flint tools. This suggests hunter gathers butchered and cooked tortoises as part of a diet dominated by large game animals and vegetation, according to a new release.

Researchers say their findings shed light on the relatively broad diet of early Paleolithic people, and on 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," Barkai added. "Our discovery adds a really rich human dimension - a culinary and therefore cultural depth to what we already know about these people."

However, tortoises would not have provided early humans with as many calories as large game, such as fallow deer. Therefore, Barki concluded the tortoises would have likely been a supplement - an appetizer, dessert or a side dish - to the meat and fat from larger animals.

In previous studies, bones scattered throughout the cave pointed to a calorie-rich prehistoric menu of horses, fallow deer and wild ox. And a study last year, based on dental evidence, indicated the cave's inhabitants also feasted on plant-based material.

"In some cases in history, we know that slow-moving animals like tortoises were used as a 'preserved' or 'canned' food," co-leader of the study Dr. Blasco explained in the university's release. "Maybe the inhabitants of Qesem were simply maximizing their local resources. In any case, this discovery adds an important new dimension to the knowhow, capabilities and perhaps taste preferences of these people."

Their study was recently published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

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