Bone Appétit : Early Humans in Israel Invented Food Storage 400,000 Years Ago, Scientists Find

Earliest sign of hunger anticipation? The hominins living in Qesem Cave in central Israel during the early Palaeolithic preserved marrow-rich bones of fallow deer

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Deer metapodials stored during the experiment
Deer metapodials stored during the experimentCredit: Dr Ruth Blasco
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

pAlmost half a million years ago, early humans had apparently discovered the principle of squirreling away food for a rainy day.

The hominins living in Qesem Cave in central Israel during the early Palaeolithic, around 400,000 to 220,000 years ago,seem to have preserved long bones of fallow deer which they would only break to extract the nutritious marrow after weeks, possibly longer, suggests a team of Israeli and Spanish scientists.

>> Read more: Why archaic humans in Israel collected feathers 420,000 years ago

Experiments with latter-day dead deer indicate that the marrow inside skin-covered bones could have remained edible and nutritious for up to nine weeks, under some conditions, Dr. Ruth Blasco of Tel Aviv University and the team reported Wednesday in Science Advances. “The nine weeks is under modern conditions,” points out co-author Dr. Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University to Haaretz. “That’s a minimum. They may have stored their bones for longer.”

And how did the archaeologists figure this out? By noticing atypical cut marks from stone tools on fossilized deer metapodial bones that couldn’t be explained at Qesem. No such marks had ever been seen, or at least noticed, before. Metapodials (the bones between the ankle and the hoof) is as long as the other parts of the legs in ungulates, and they are not meat-bearing bones. There’s nothing to eat there.

Chop marks, cortical scars and chipped marks on the anterior and posterior surface of metapodial shafts from Qesem CaveCredit: Dr Ruth Blasco

The cuts on the metapodials were not typical of the marks made when defleshing with stone tools or stripping fresh skin to fracture the bone and extract marrow, explains co-author Prof. Joan Rosell of Universitat Rovirai Virgili.

Experimentation on latter-day animals demonstrated that the marks were evidently signature of removing dry skin. 

That begs the question of why the hominins had metapodial bones with dry skin in the first place, and the answer that comes to mind is storage.

The ground-breaking discoveries relate to the entire period, over two hundred thousand years, that hominins lived in that cave.

If indeed deer feet were stored for future use 400,000 years ago, the evidence at Qesem is the earliest known instance of food preservation for the purpose of delayed consumption, team members say. 

Chop marks, cortical scars and chipped marks on the anterior and posterior surface of metapodial shafts from Qesem CaveCredit: Dr Ruth Blasco

Of course, it is possible that archaeologists throughout the ages have been seeing signs of bones being stored for later marrow extraction, but failed to realize what they were seeing. Now that this paper describes the cuts at great length, possibly others may revisit their finds, or make new ones, and find the same evidence. “My prediction is –they will, absolutely,” Barkai tells Haaretz, pointing out that one often finds what one expects to find, and doesn’t notice the elephant in the room. 

Apropos elephants, why would the ancients of Qesem preserve skimpy deer bones and not the skeletal remains of some beefier animals?

Hominins arrived in Israel at least 1.5 million years ago and ate of the elephant for over one million years. But by the time Qesem was occupied, some 400,000 years ago, the pachyderms were gone, 
Barkai explains. Previously elephants had been the go-to choice.

In fact previous research by Barkai and others shows that 300,000 years ago, elephants in Italy were indeed consumed and had their marrow extracted But the inference in that report, published in May, is that the marrow was fresh. Here, it isn’t.

In this story, let us remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and one man’s reeking fish is another man’s delicacy. From lutefisk which has been called the most objectionable food in the world to rotting slime-dripping soybeans called natto, ditto, to live-maggot-infested cheese – let us not be judgmental.

But still, wouldn’t eating festering marrow make the prehistoric forefathers living in Qesem sick as dogs? 

Dr. Ruth Blasco during the analysis of bones from Qesem Cave at the Tel-Aviv University laboratory at the Institute of ArchaeologyCredit: Prof. J. Rosell

First of all, spoiled by the refrigerator which has been around for almost 200 years, modern hominins have lost their taste for putrid cuisine, and ability to eat it unharmed. We tend to assume that hunter-gatherers, and Paleolithic cave-dwellers, had to constantly seek fresh food or they would starve. 

But it isn’t necessarily so. For one thing, food storage for the morrow definitely goes back. In North America, certain indigenous peoples dried meat and fat to make pemmican; Nunamiut Eskimos stored bones to eat their marrow through winter, but both these examples are historical, ie., not prehistorical. Signs of storage in prehistory include copious amounts of grain and legumes at the Neolithic site at Motza, dating to 9,000 years ago; a 7,200-year-old clay model of a silo found in Israel, even more indicative that grain was stored that long ago. But that’s recent prehistory and at Qesem, these dwellers weren’t even modern humans. Who they were remains unclear, though separate work by Prof. Israel Hershkovitz and others suggests they may have been early modern humans and/or Neanderthals.

Whoever they were, they seem to have stored bones from which they would later remove dried skin and shatter with stone hammers. 

For a second thing, with all due respect to lutefisk and durian fruit, we may assume the hominins in Qesem had a way to preserve the skin-covered metapodials or the stench of the rotting flesh, fat and skin would presumably have deterred even their least discerning members.

Chop marks, cortical scars and chipped marks on the anterior and posterior surface of metapodial shafts from Qesem CaveCredit: Dr Ruth Blasco

For a third thing, nestled inside intact bone, the fat-rich, nutrient-packed marrow would have been protected from bacteria and other microbial agents of rot at least for some weeks, barring accidental contamination. It would have been safer to eat than exposed dried meat. Marrow ensconced inside the bone could have been a Paleolithic version of Twinkies – the cake that famously fails to decompose. Finally there’s the argument that the peoples of the Arctic, in particular, have a predilection for fermented. i.e., rotting meatstuffs, it doesn’t kill them, and they like it, too.

“We show for the first time in our study that 420,000 to 200,000 years ago, prehistoric humans at Qesem Cave were sophisticated enough, intelligent enough and talented enough to know that it was possible to preserve particular bones of animals under specific conditions, and, when necessary, remove the skin, crack the bone and eat the bone marrow,” co-author Prof.Avi Gopher sums up.

“This is the earliest evidence of such behavior and offers insight into the socioeconomics of the humans who lived at Qesem,” adds Dr. Blasco.” It also marks a threshold for new modes of Palaeolithic human adaptation. 

"Food storage is considered a 'risk reducing mechanism designed to offset downturns in resource availability," Blasco tells Haaretz. "The deliberate accumulation of metapodials implies an anticipated concern for future needs. This fact marks a threshold for new modes of Paleolithic adaptation because the foresight capacity surpasses the 'here and now' as a means of subsistence. To date, we can say that Qesem shows the existence of this behavior as far back in time as the Middle Pleistocene, but there may be more sites that record this in the future."

Skin removal on the proximal part of the metapodials and tendons removal in combination with skinning during the experimentation, April 10, 2015Credit: Dr Ruth Blasco

Storing deer feet could have been anticipation of "future hunger," she adds. Or, it could simply have been the integration of a foresight system as a way of life.

Deer me

Their choice of deer feet as a storage vehicle may not have been random. Barkai for one strongly feels it’s not a coincidence.

In Labrador, there are whole ceremonies dedicated to the metapodia of caribou among the nomadic Innu people (who are not related to the Inuits). Absent the ability to cultivate carbohydrates, they were heavily dependent on fat consumption. But in contrast to the modern world, their interaction with animals had philosophical and religious aspects: they ate animals and respected them too – even believing that the animals willingly allowed themselves to be eaten, for which they were grateful. 

“The caribou was of special importance, and was celebrated at a special feast, called a Mokushan, at which quantities of caribou fat and bone marrow were consumed,” according to a paper on Innu heritage published by The Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website. In short, deer and their ilk may have received special treatment going back hundreds of thousands of years, and Barkai suspects that the metapodials in particular had some special significance in human culinary and cultural evolution.

“In my opinion it’s no coincidence that they focused on specific bones,” he tells Haaretz. He also believes that respect for nature in all its forms was a characteristic of prehistoric peoples and hominin species, which we modern species spectacularly lost. 

What advantage might deer metapodials confer? At this stage we do not know. But it’s worth pointing out that the discovery of edible bone marrow in elephants is a startling new discovery. Lay people might be startled to think that in an age of space exploration and microscopes that can see atoms, we didn’t know until this year that elephants had hollow long bones with marrow we could eat. We did not know this because nobody cared to check. Now we know. 

Nobody has checked the marrow content of ungulate metapodials compared with other bones in the deer and compared other animals, Barkai says. But the ancients living in Qesem Cave before Homo sapiens was even a thing may have discovered something remarkable about these bones, just as they discovered how useful fire and cooking are.

How sure are we that they preserved the metapodials in order to eat the marrow ? "We have shown here that the marrow can remain in good condition (nutritionally speaking) for several weeks, but we also have to take into account that fat is not only exploited as a food resource, but can be used for other purposes, such as technological uses (e.g. waterproofing skins, treatment of plant fibers, fuel for lighting," Blasco says. Whether "it was consumed or used for other purposes, the important point here is the capacity to plan and forecast that arise from this fact."

The team believes that Qesem also has evidence of innovative behaviors such as recycling. They may have even purposely defeathered birds such as swans and ravens, possibly for ritual purposes In short it is possible that dried deer feet were a sort of canned soup of the Paleolithic, as TAU suggests. Now all that remains is to find a prehistoric Warhol.

The study was led by Dr. Ruth Blasco of TAU’s Institute of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations and Centro Nacional de InvestigaciónSobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) and her TAU colleagues Prof. Ran Barkai and Prof. Avi Gopher. It was conducted in collaboration with Prof. J. Rosell and M. Arilla of URV and IPHES, Prof. A. Margalida of University of Lledia, University of Bern and IREC and Prof. D. Villalba of University of Lleida.

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