Whole-Roasted Turtle: a Prehistoric Favorite for Millennia

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Although small, turtles were fairly easy to catch, which may have made them an attractive prey for early humans. Timothy Krause/Flickr

Picture prehistoric people on the hunt, and you probably see spear throwers chasing deer and other fleet-footed game. But a recent discovery in Qesem Cave near Tel Aviv suggests that our Paleolithic ancestors also ate turtles 400,000 years ago.

In a study published Monday in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews, researchers reported finding turtle remains throughout the cave. The bones they found had cut marks suggesting that the turtles were likely cooked whole in their shells and then broken open.

The specimens were found at multiple levels of the archeological dig, which indicates that the turtles remained popular with humans for many of the 200,000 years that they inhabited in the cave.

Wild horses, fallow deer, cattle and other large and medium game seem to have been the main meat source for the Qesem inhabitants, who also ate plants. This discovery suggests that they liked to eat little animals as well.

"In some cases in history, we know that slow-moving animals like tortoises were used as a 'preserved' or 'canned' food," lead author Ruth Blasco, of Spain’s Centro Nacional de Investigacion Sobre la Evolucion Humana, said in a statement. "Maybe the inhabitants of Qesem were simply maximizing their local resources,” by keeping the slow-moving prey close at hand and eating them when other foods were in short supply.