Did 420,000-Year-Old Humans Plan Their Diets and Store Food?
Israeli scientists have found evidence that early humans thought ahead and stored fat and marrow laden animals bones for rainy days.
According to a new study published in Science Advances the early humans who populated the Qesem cave near Tel Aviv in Israel, between 200,000 and 420,000 years ago, anticipated their future needs through dietary planning, and the paper is making headlines because previously early humans had not been thought capable of such dietary foresight.
The researchers first identified cut marks on most of the surfaces of the animal bones recovered from Qesem cave and they were found to be consistent with what the paper calls “preservation and delayed consumption.” It would appear early humans carefully removed the skins from dried bones which had been stored longer, and of the sample set of more than 80,000 animal bones, the researchers noted cut marks on 78% of the specimens analyzed.
Examples of cut marks associated to disarticulation and/or skinning on deer metapodials from Amudian and Yabrudian levels of Qesem Cave. (Image: Ruth Blasco/ Science Advances )
Reinterpreting Kill Site Activities
The study shows that inhabitants of the cave selected body parts of hunted animal carcasses like fallow deer, and that their limbs and skulls were taken to the cave while the remainder of the carcasses were stripped of meat and fat and abandoned at the hunting scenes, according to Professor Jordi Rosell from the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES), reported in the Independent.
Professor Ran Barkai from Tel Aviv University in Israel says bone marrow is high in nutrition and as such was long featured in the prehistoric diet , but until now, all evidence had pointed towards “immediate consumption” of marrow at the kill site . But the deer leg bones were found to have unique chopping marks on the shafts which is not caused when stripping fresh skin to fracture bones for the extraction of marrow, he said.
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Skinning in combination with tendon removal requires a specific use of the tool with an inclination almost parallel to the bone. (Image: Maite Arilla / Science Advances )
Delays In Eating
In the paper the researchers say that hunter-gatherer food storage was a “risk-reducing mechanism” offsetting resource scarcity and it is typically seen as evidence of “intensified subsistence activities”. Having recreated the cave’s environmental conditions the researchers determined that any stored bone marrow would have remained nutritious for up to nine weeks after the animals had been killed.
The storing of grease and marrow for delayed consumption has been documented among ethnographic groups such as in the Nunamiut Eskimo communities where bones are stored over the winter and processed in large batches. The Loucheux people also process the bones secondarily and with a slight delay, and both groups store it inside the stomach of caribou which they claim keeps the foods edible for 2 or 3 years.
Breaking into the bones to reach the marrow. (Image: Maite Arilla / Science Advances )
Rancid To Order?
In 2017, Dr J. D. Speth published a paper looking at the consumption of putrid meat and fish in the Eurasian middle and upper paleolithic and he argued that arctic and subarctic people’s consumption of fermented and deliberately rotted meat was a “desirable and nutritionally important component of human diets”, and not solely as starvation food. While it is clear ancient “processed” foods had dietary benefits the paper says the fats must have tasted and smelled “rancid.”
However, before we jump back to the old paradigm that early humans were dumb and just ate whatever was in front of them whether fresh or crawling with maggots, the researchers say they found it difficult to know if rancidity in meat impaired the consumption of aged marrow, or not. This might sound peculiar to many readers who frequent western restaurants but will make perfect sense to anyone living in Iceland, for example.
Some traditional Icelandic food (plate to the left: Hangikjöt, Hrútspungar, Lifrarpylsa, Blóðmör, Hákarl, Svið. plate to the right: Rúgbrauð, Flatbrauð) ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
“The Worst, Most Disgusting And Terrible Tasting Thing”
Hákarl is a national dish of Iceland and as a þorramatur, a selection of traditional Icelandic food served at the midwinter festival þorrablót, it is a fermented or rotten Greenland shark cured with a traditional fermentation process by being hung up to dry for four to five months. Only after a strong ammonia-smell develops and enhances the fishy taste is it cut down and served.
In 2008 I ventured to Iceland and was presented with Hákarl in a business environment in which I couldn’t make excuses and avoid eating it. I took a cube in my almost shaking hand and immediately though that it smelled of cleaning products and I gagged on the smell of the high ammonia content. After the locals laughed, they advised me to pinch my nose and I did so, but even then I have to agree with the late television chef Anthony Bourdain who told the Wall Street Journal fermented shark was “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he had ever eaten.
But the point is, Icelanders love rancid fish meats and so too might early humans living in the Qesem cave near Tel Aviv have loved a mouthful of heaving, rotting deer bone.
Top image: Early Human diet: Marrow inside a metapodial bone after six weeks of storage. Source Dr. Ruth Blasco/ AFTAU
By Ashley Cowie