Ancient Humans Sat Down to Meals of Snakes and Lizards
A team of Israeli researchers have discovered the first evidence of ancient humans eating snakes and lizards as part of their diet. The University of Haifa archaeologists say 15,000 years ago residents of the el-Wad Terrace in the Mount Carmel area near Haifa “ate reptiles” in their diets and that this was possibly a part of transitioning to a sedentary lifestyle.
The new findings were published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, in which the archaeologists said that while they have long known ancient people ate snakes in the Middle Ages, they now have evidence of this dietary habit 15,000 years ago. Furthermore, researcher Reuven Yeshurun told Times of Israel that it is very possible that with the help of the new testing method the team have developed they’ll “find even earlier evidence.”
Excavations at el-Wad Terrace in the Carmel. ( Reuven Yeshurum / University of Haifa )
Identifying the Decomposing Snakes and Lizards
The ancient people who inhabited the Mount Carmel area near Haifa were part of the Natufian civilization, known for its transition into an agricultural lifestyle, and thousands of bones from snakes and lizards have been found on the floors of prehistoric homes in the area, however, until now it was unclear whether the animals had been eaten by humans or not. The bones of larger animals discovered at the site, like for example rabbits, have markings that indicate their carcasses had been butchered, cooked and eaten, but lizard and snake bones do not bear similar marks.
Vertebrates of reptiles studied by University of Haifa archaeologists. ( Roee Shafir )
To determine whether the snake and lizard carcasses had been eaten, the team of researchers studied the “surfaces and fragmentation patterns of the lizard and snakes bones” found at the site, and they recreated the natural decomposition processes that break down animal carcasses. This included leaving reptile carcasses outside and also burning them before comparing the decomposition patterns with the ancient bones.
The researchers’ experiments determined that the ancient humans had indeed eaten the “snake-like European glass lizard, large whip snake, and to a lesser extent, eastern Montpellier snake and common viper,” and they think this broadening of diets in the ancient communities might indicate the “transition to a more sedentary lifestyle and more intense use of resources,” the researchers wrote.
Palestine viper, a viper species endemic to the Levant. (Guy Haimovitch/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Serpentine Secrets of Ancient Human Poo
In April 2019, I wrote an Ancient Origins news article about a team of archaeologists who published a paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports presenting evidence of a human coprolite deposited in a cave in Texas' Lower Pecos region. Evidence was found that the person who left behind the poo was an early hunter-gatherer who “ate an entire venomous snake, possibly for religious reasons.”
Archaeologist Elanor Sonderman said the discovery of the complete “undigested remains of the snake, minus one fang, found inside a fossilized feces,” was discovered inside the coprolite as part of a class project in graduate school. None of them, nor the professor, had any idea that this coprolite would be “so special”.
The rattlesnake fang found in the fossilized coprolite, or fossilized poop. The venom channel is clearly visible. ( Sonderman / Texas A&M University)
But that was Ritual Serpent Consumption, Not Dietary
1,500 years ago, that region was quite arid and it is thought humans living there would have been forced to subsist on a variety of small animals and hardy plants. So, while researchers can't say for sure whether snake consumption was common among the people of the Lower Pecos, according to an earlier UPI article, archaeologists have previously found evidence that similar groups ate snakes.
The hunter-gatherer who had eaten a whole venomous snake, archaeologists suggest, more likely completed the act as part of a ritual. It is known, for example, that there are Hopi rituals in which live snakes are put in their mouths as part of rain-bringing ceremonies.
Further supporting the suggestion that Native American tribes only ate snakes ritually, Sonderman told UPI, “We also presented reference to an image in a Codex from the Aztec of central Mexico, showing humans with snakes in their mouths surrounding the rain god, Tlaloc”. And what is interesting in all this is that the hunter gatherer who had eaten the whole venomous snake had what the researchers called “a fairly typical diet prior to consuming a whole venomous snake,” which suggests snakes weren’t dietary, as they evidently were in the Mount Carmel area near Haifa 15,000 years ago.
Top Image: Ancient humans were eating snakes and lizards 15,000 years ago. Source: boyloso / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie
Eating reptiles was common in Australia. Given that the continent warmed and dried more than 15,000 years ago (leading to greater reptilian numbers) and that Aboriginal culture was very conservative and tradition-based, this dietary habit is unlikely to have been restricted to that time period alone.