Attention, Britons and French: You can lay down arms in your war over who ate snails first. Ancestors of you both ate them eons before you.
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Nobody actually knows who was the brave soul to eat the first snail, but in a paper published on Wednesday, archaeologists report the oldest evidence of land snail consumption, at a recently discovered site in the Iberian Peninsula dating to about 26,000 to 31,000 years ago.
Specifically, the people there ate of the Iberus alonensis, a dweller of the Mediterranean region. Remains of the giant slime-footed beasts were found at three different archaeological levels as well as evidence of cooking, says the team headed by Javier Fernández-López de Pablo of the Human Paleontology and Social Evolution institute in Tarragona, Spain.
Prehistoric man liked his giant snails roasted on pine and juniper wood, or rosemary wood, at a temperature of less than 375°C, report the archaeologists – who even found the hearth where the snails were cooked.
The team points out that the earliest evidence of snail consumption in the Middle East and south Mediterranean area is 10,000 years later, from which they reasonably conclude that people in different areas are different things at different times (differing "subsistence activity").
Prehistoric men were believed to have a wider range of diet than their Neanderthal cousins, who – though they are now known to have eaten plants as well – were famous for their carnivorous appetite, dining off big herbivores, with smaller ones, fish, birds and the like coming only in second place. Neanderthals did eat marine shellfish but land snails were not clearly eaten before the Paleolithic area.
The evidence of the human predilection for large land snails was found in Cova de la Barriada, a "prehistoric complex" of two rock shelters. The site was dug in 2011.
Among their findings were piles of shells from land snails and marine mollusks that clearly had human origin.
By the way, the site didn't have a view of the sea in the icy Paleolithic times: the Mediterranean Sea was about 90 to 100 meters lower than today. The archaeologists estimate that the site lay as much as 20 kilometers from the shore.
Beyond snails, bone and other remains show that the dwellers in the area ate deer, ibex, horses and aurochs too, writes the archaeological team, adding that the inhabitants were evidently comfortable exploiting different environments, from plains to forests to rocky mountains. Nutritionists beg to note that snails are rich in nutrients, minerals, and even vitamin B12. Now we know.