A delicacy now, snails in the human diet may have meant survival 150,000 years ago
Archaeologists digging in Libya have found evidence of human habitation going back at least 150,000 years and have had a glimpse into the people’s diet: snails whose shells were pierced to get at the meat.
The site, at Haua Fteah Cave on the Mediterranean coast, has been under investigation since 1948. Recently, archaeologists with three British universities have examined tens of thousands of snail shells that show evidence of being worked by humans. The researchers have done scientific dating on the shells to determine how old they are. The institutions involved are the University of Cambridge, Queen’s University Belfast and Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Cambridge.
“These people certainly ate a lot of snails, but they also ate plant foods including pine nuts, wild fruits, and seeds of wild plants and animals including Barbary sheep, tortoises and antelopes,” Chris Hunt of Liverpool John Moores University told the Mail Online. “We think people were pretty short of food at this time. They seem to have been so short of food around 10,000 years ago that they had to gather even really small snails. Small shells are rather difficult to gather and you don't get much food value from them so people only do it when they are desperate.”
By drilling a hole in the shell, the people could more easily suck out the meat because the suction had been broken.
Cambridge Professor Charles McBurney discovered the large cave in 1948. Three years later he came back and dug down 14 meters (46 feet) into the cave’s floor. He found “layer upon layer of evidence of human occupation going back thousands of years into deep prehistory,” says a blog at the University of Cambridge’s website.
In 2007 Professor Graeme Barker, director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge University, returned with 30 scholars from 10 institutions to study the cave and its evidence of human habitation.
At the time of the blog, the team had found evidence of humans in the area going back 80,000 years. But research on the molluscs shows modern humans were there at least 150,000 years ago, which Barker suspected.
“Now that we have the first definite evidence for our species being in North Africa at least 80,000 years ago, the question is whether they were behaving in ways we would recognise as modern,” he said. “We are looking for evidence of their technologies and hunting practices and their level of cognition,’ explained Professor Barker. ‘And since we have another 6 metres to go before we hit bedrock, the deepest archaeological trench in North Africa has potentially a 200,000-year-old story to tell.”
The oldest human-looking fossil ever found in the area was about 200,000 years old. There could have been humans before then, but so far evidence of them has not been found.
A reconstructed Homo sapiens skull from about 100,000 years, found in a cave in South Africa; at the site in Libya in North Africa, researchers found jawbones about 80,000 years old. (Photo by Wapondaponda/Wikimedia Commons)
McBurney had believed the jawbones he found were pre-modern, that is earlier than Homo sapiens. McBurney also concluded that the people arrived in North Africa around 40,000 years ago, about the same time they reached Europe.
“The advent of new technologies has enabled us to re-evaluate this. Already our findings are showing that this site is probably far older than McBurney realised. The jaws are now recognised to belong to Homo sapiens,” Dr. Barker is quoted as saying in the blog.
Featured image: Snails appear to have holes drilled into them to make it easier to extract the meat, researchers say. (Liverpool John Moores University photos)
By Mark Miller