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A new discovery by Tel Aviv University researchers in collaboration with scholars from Spain and Germany has revealed that tortoises formed part of the diets of prehistoric man 400,000 years ago.

The discovery was made at the Qesem Cave in the greater Tel Aviv area, which has been the site of many major findings from the late Lower Paleolithic period. The research was published in Quaternary Science Reviews on Tuesday.


The researchers, Professor Ran Barkai and Professor Avi Gopher of TAU’s Department of Archeology, uncovered evidence of turtle specimens at the 400,000-year-old site. The findings indicate that prehistoric man consumed tortoises in addition to produce and large game animals. The researchers are also currently examining bird bones recently discovered at the Qesem Cave.

“It was believed until now that Paleolithic humans hunted and ate mostly produce and large game,” said Prof. Ran Barkai. “Our discovery adds a really rich human dimension, a culinary and therefore cultural depth to what we already know about these people.”

The research team discovered tortoise specimens strewn all over the cave at different levels thus indicating that they were consumed over the entire course of Paleolithic human prehistory. The exhumed bones revealed strike marks that reflected the methods used by prehistoric man to process and eat the tortoises.

“We know by dental examinations of previous discoveries that the Qesem Cave inhabitants ate vegetables,” said Prof. Barkai. “We can say now that they also ate tortoises, which were collected, butchered, and roasted even though they do not provide as many calories as fallow deer, for example.”

According to Prof. Gopher, the new evidence also provides room for speculation over the division of labor at the Qesem Cave.

“Which part of the group found and collected the tortoises?” asked Gopher. “They may have been those not otherwise involved in hunting large game—people who could manage the low handling costs of these reptiles, such as the elderly or children.”

“The marks show that most of the turtles were roasted in the shell,” said Prof. Barkai. “In other cases, the shells were broken and then butchered using flint tools. The humans clearly used fire to roast the turtles. Of course, they focused their efforts on hunting large game, but they also consumed living things in the vicinity, such as tortoises.”

Tortoises are rarely consumed today, though some East Asian cultures consider the reptile a delicacy.

“In some cases in history, we know that slow-moving animals such as tortoises were used as a ‘preserved’ or ‘canned’ food of sorts,” said Prof. Barkai. “But maybe the inhabitants of Qesem were simply maximizing their local resources. Either way, this discovery adds an important new dimension to the know-how, capabilities, and perhaps taste preferences of these people.”