Tortoise may be an ingredient that has almost completely receded from the modern culinary lexicon, but one team of archeologists has discovered that prehistoric humans were pretty big fans of the shelled reptile.
But you wouldn't typically find tortoises as centerpieces for the meals of our knuckle-dragging ancestors. Ran Barkai, a senior lecturer in Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, says prehistoric cave dwellers preferred to eat tortoises roasted in their own shell as an appetizer or side dish.
Researchers from Barkai's team—in conjunction with colleagues from Germany and Spain—have discovered a plethora of tortoise remains exhibiting signs of heating and cutting in the Qesem Cave near Tel Aviv, Israel—an archeological site dating back to the late Lower Paleolithic Age. That was the earliest era of the Old Stone Age, when the first stone tools were produced. The cave in question dates from about 400,000 years ago.
A study that summarizes the findings, just published in the Quaternary Science Reviews, says that the researchers found tortoise specimens throughout the cave and at different levels. That means that turtles were eaten over the entire course of habitation of the cave, which spanned 200,000 years. From the bones, the scientists can tell how they collected, butchered, and then cooked the animals.
"Until now, it was believed that Paleolithic humans hunted and ate mostly large game and vegetal material," Professor Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University said. "Our discovery adds a really rich human dimension—a culinary and therefore cultural depth to what we already know about these people."
These Paleos—the real kind, not the modern, dieting kind—mostly ate wild horses, fallow deer, and cattle. The researchers speculate that perhaps the tortoises were a means to supplement other foods: "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, the lead researcher. "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."
And these cave-dwelling carnivores didn't make turtle ceviche or boil the tortoises up with a few stones added for flavor. Instead, Professor Barkai says, "According to the marks, most of the turtles were roasted in the shell."
Sounds pretty good to us.