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Ancient Humans Basically Used Bones as Tupperware, Researchers Say

Further proof that nothing is more metal than ancient history.

by Jelisa Castrodale
Oct 11 2019, 11:00am

Photo: Getty Images

Almost 20 years ago, a construction crew was building a road about seven miles east of Tel Aviv, Israel, but the project came to an abrupt stop when the workers realized that they'd discovered a large stone cave. Several teams of archaeologists took over the site, and Qesem Cave, as it's known, has proven to be a scientific wet dream; for starters, some of the discoveries from the cave have raised questions about our current understanding of both human origins and human evolution.

Most recently, researchers from Tel Aviv University's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations have found evidence that prehistoric humans were storing food, in the form of skin-wrapped deer bones. In a recently published paper called Bone marrow storage and delayed consumption at Middle Pleistocene Qesem Cave, Israel, Dr. Ruth Blasco and her colleagues explained that more than 400,000 years ago, the Paleolithic people who lived in the cave had discovered a method of preserving the marrow inside small segments of deer bones by wrapping each fragment with the animal's skin.

"We show for the first time in our study that 420,000 to 200,000 years ago, prehistoric humans at Qesem Cave were sophisticated enough, intelligent enough and talented enough to know that it was possible to preserve particular bones of animals under specific conditions, and, when necessary, remove the skin, crack the bone and eat the bone marrow," Prof. Avi Gopher told Science Daily.

Until this discovery, it was presumed that these prehistoric humans were hunter-gatherers who ate when they found food, and had to go without when they didn't; there had not been any previous evidence of their preservation methods—no Paleolithic food dehydrators scattered in the furthest corners of the cave.

These early humans hunted the animals, typically fallow deer, and stripped most of the meat and fat from the carcasses before returning to the cave with their limbs and skulls. The marrow could be stored inside the bones for more than two months, researchers say. How do they know that? Because they did the same thing.

Dr. Blasco and her team sourced freshly culled red deer from Spain’s Boumourt National Game Reserve, and collected 79 metapodial bones from their lower legs. They ran three series of tests to try to replicate three different seasons, and they used stone tools to remove the skin and access the bone marrow. After going fully, authentically Paleo (pssh, Crossfitters have got nothing) they discovered that there were low levels of "degradation" of the marrow fat after being stored for as long as nine weeks. (They did note that some samples "emitted a bad odor" when they were extracted from the bone.)

"This is the earliest evidence of such behavior and offers insight into the socioeconomics of the humans who lived at Qesem," Dr. Blasco said. "It also marks a threshold for new modes of Paleolithic human adaptation."

In 2016, Dr. Blasco and her colleagues discovered the remains of cooked and chopped tortoises inside the cave, suggesting that these same prehistoric humans supplemented their diet with the occasional turtle on the half-shell. "Maybe the inhabitants of Qesem were simply maximizing their local resources," she said at the time. "In any case, this discovery adds an important new dimension to the knowhow, capabilities and perhaps taste preferences of these people."

That's all so much more metal than the trash that future archaeologists will uncover in another 100,000 years. They're not gonna have a charger for all those AirPods, anyway.

Tagged:
history
Bones
bone marrow
food storage
tupperware