Turtles, or tortoises, are rarely consumed today but a select few cultures, primarily those in East Asia, still consider turtle soup made from the flesh of the turtle a delicacy. And new research has revealed that early humans some 400,000 years ago also savoured roasted turtle delicacies.
Researchers have uncovered evidence of turtle specimens at Qesem Cave near Tel Aviv, Israel — the site of many major findings from the late Lower Paleolithic period — indicating that early humans 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 one of the lead researchers Ran Barkai, professor at Tel Aviv University in Israel.
“Our discovery adds a really rich human dimension — a culinary and therefore cultural depth to what we already know about these people,” Barkai noted.
The findings were published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.
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,” Barkai said.
“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,” Barkai said.
“According to the marks, most of the turtles were roasted in the shell,” Barkai added.
“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 of food — tortoises — which were in the vicinity,” Barkai said.