A new archaeological discovery at Qesem Cave near Tel Aviv has revealed that tortoises were a gourmet delicacy for early humans some 400,000 years ago.

“Until now, it was believed that Paleolithic humans hunted and ate mostly large game and vegetal material,” said TAU’s Institute of Archaeology 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 Qesem Cave site has turned up major findings from the late Lower Paleolithic period. Tel Aviv University researchers, in collaboration with scholars from Spain and Germany, have uncovered 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 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.”

The research also provides direct evidence of the relatively broad diet of early Paleolithic people — and of the “modern” tools and skills employed to prepare it.

“According to the marks, most of the turtles were roasted in the shell,” Barkai noted. “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.”

According to the study, Qesem inhabitants hunted mainly medium and large game such as wild horses, fallow deer and cattle. 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.

“In some cases in history, we know that slow-moving animals like tortoises were used as a ‘preserved’ or ‘canned’ food,” said Dr. Ruth Blasco of the Centro Nacional de Investigacion Sobre la Evolucion Humana (CENIEH), Spain. “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.”

The research was recently published in Quaternary Science Reviews.

In addition to Blasco and Barkai, collaborators on the study included Prof. Avi Gopher of TAU’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations; Dr. Jordi Rosell and Dr. Pablo Sanudo of Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV) and Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social (IPHES), Spain; and Dr. Krister T. Smith and Dr. Lutz Christian Maul of the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum, Germany.

The researchers are now examining bird bones that were recently discovered at Qesem Cave.