Our Ancestors Loved Grubbing on Tortoises, According to New Study

© Gillian Moore / Alamy Stock Photo

In most places, turtles and their cousin the tortoise are niche ingredients, but life today is much different than it was for our ancestors during the late Lower Paleolithic era. While today we have companies like Seamless to deliver food right to our door, our ancestors hunted their meals, so a slow-moving tortoise was quite a convenient dinner option.

According to recently published research investigating the 400,000-year-old Qesem Cave site near Tel Aviv, the tortoise may have been a far more common food than previously thought for early humans living in what is now modern-day Israel. Researchers found tortoise remains across different levels of the cave, leading them to believe humans consumed the animal during the site’s entire 200,000 years of inhabitation.

Beyond being easy to capture, the shelled animals “represent an important combination of edible and non-edible resources,” according to the paper, and humans could prepare them as a meal in a wide variety of ways. “According to the marks, most of the turtles were roasted in the shell,” said Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University. “In other cases, their shells were broken and then butchered using flint tools.”

Scientists have conducted lots of previous research at the ancient cave, but this team believes the tortoise findings are a bit of a revelation about these Paleolithic people’s diet and hunting activities. “Until now, it was believed that Paleolithic humans hunted and ate mostly large game and vegetal material,” Barkai stated. “Now we can say they also ate tortoises … even though they don't provide as many calories as fallow deer, for example.” Tel Aviv University’s Avi Gopher speculated on who might have been collecting these tortoises: “Maybe members who were not otherwise involved in hunting large game, who could manage the low effort required to collect these reptiles” were behind it, Gopher said. “Perhaps the elderly or children.”

So turns out the tortoise may have been the ancient equivalent of grabbing a pizza on the way home from work. When you’ve had a long day at the office fighting saber-toothed tigers or whatever these Paleo people did for a living, you sure don’t feel like killing yourself over dinner.

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