Shell Shock: Why Were Turtles Hardly Eaten in the Levant 10,000 Years Ago?

Hoping to inquire into human-turtle relations in prehistory, a study finds spotty evidence of turtle consumption in the East Mediterranean – and it wasn’t because they were hard to catch

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Complete  loggerhead sea turtle carapace from Fadous (scale bar = 0.25m)
Complete loggerhead sea turtle carapace from Fadous (scale bar = 0.25m)Credit: figure by F.J. Koolstra & C. Çakırlar / © Antiquity Publications Ltd, 2020

People love to eat turtles and tortoises, and always have – an appetite that has helped reduce Mediterranean sea turtles to desperate straits. Now an article by Canan Çakrlar from the University of Groningen and colleagues, published in the journal of Antiquity, reports proof of sea turtle consumption going back around 10,000 years in East Mediterranean coastal communities, but not earlier. Which seems strange.

The coastal prehistoric peoples of the Paleolithic ate pretty much everything else that moved in the sea. Other studies have found consumption of testudinidae, the greater family of turtles and tortoises, going back more than a million years. Hominins and humans alike supped on roast tortoise, so one has to wonder why Mediterranean sea turtles – of which there are three tasty species – were relatively spared until the Neolithic.

Çakrlar and the team suspect that, simply, the Mediterranean was too cold for the reptiles at the time. The great glaciers of the Last Glacial Maximum were still in the process of retreating, and the Mediterranean was both lower in sea level and not the balmy bathtub it is today.

Actually, the team’s purpose was to study human impact on Mediterranean marine biodiversity. Turtle-wise, the Eastern Mediterranean where their research focused is currently home to the green and the loggerhead, which are full sea turtles, and the Nile soft-shelled turtle, which is a freshwater species that does not cavil at seeking food in the sea, including in the Aegean.

All are at least vulnerable and, at worst, critically endangered. And it’s our fault.

A female brown tortoise returning to the sea after laying her eggs.Credit: aniv Levy / Israel Sea Turtle Rescue Center

“Biodiversity in the Eastern Mediterranean is in crisis due to human impact,” Çakrlar explains. “Sea turtles are flagship species of conservation, being both charismatic and key species in warm oceans.”

Turtle stew in Lebanon

To delve into the development of human-turtle relations (hunter-prey, nu), the team tapped published zooarchaeological reports and analyzed new data from five ancient coastal settlements: Clazomenae on the Eastern Aegean; Kinet Höyük on the Turkish coast; and three in Lebanon – Tell Fadous-Kfarabida, Beirut and Tell el-Burak. The hope was to elucidate how our exploitation of the turtle affected their populations.

One can make rough assumptions about the sex and age of turtle remains going by shell size. For instance, nesting adult green turtles (females) measure between 71 to 134 centimeters (28 to nearly 53 inches) in curved carapace length, and lady loggerheads can run from 64 to 138 centimeters in curved carapace length.

Yes, that’s a wide range, but think about the range of humans – the bottom line is that we can roughly tell if the prehistoric peoples in these five East Mediterranean spots were eating juvenile or adult turtles, which speaks to sustainability of the turtle populations. They develop even more slowly than humans, taking on average 20 years to reach sexual maturity; all lay their eggs on land, where they are anything but nimble, rendering them and their unborn extremely vulnerable.

A Loggerhead turtle swimming in a tank, in 2005. Credit: AP

It bears saying that, based on the archaeological evidence that survived, Mediterranean sea turtle was eaten quite heavily in some spots. At Kinet and Fadous, turtle remains were as common as the typical Mediterranean domesticated animals such as pigs and cattle.

But in general, turtle consumption was very uneven during the last 10 millennia. There is very little evidence of turtle eating before 5,000 years ago; then there seems to have been quite a peak at the time of the Assyrian conquest of the Levant, the authors write.

Rather than it being a factor of a turtle population boom, the archaeologists suspect the Assyrian peak was linked to the advent of the Iron Age. Iron tools are stronger than bronze ones could have been and would have made it easier to butcher the animals.

Maybe, but the absence of iron tools never stopped prehistoric turtle eaters – one makes do with what one has, and if one want to eat turtle, one roasts it on the fire and bangs at the shell with stone tools, for instance. At Kinet, the archaeologists believe the turtles were butchered using chopping tools, a standard in the hominin and human toolkit for around 2 million years.

Also, the authors point out that the time of the Assyrian assault on the Mediterranean coastal areas was a relatively arid one, hence turtle cuisine may have replaced other foods that vanished.

A sea turtle in (slow-motion) action.Credit: Eyal Warshavsky / BauBau

All in all, the evidence for sea turtle consumption on the coastal settlements of the prehistoric Levant is spotty and may be misleading because the Eastern Mediterranean beaches, which are crucial for the reptiles’ reproduction, only formed during the Late Holocene. Most of the sites going back as much as 10,000 years are now under water. Another putative obstacle to accuracy is that people could have simply picked up dead turtles on the beach to use their shells, rather than having hunted and eaten them.

Indeed, it probably hasn’t helped the turtle’s fate over the eons that its shells could be utilized, and were: Çakrlar points to Pliny the Elder’s description of trade in turtle shells during the Roman era. The traded shells from the turtles hailed from the Phoenician coast (today Lebanon), the authors explain. The Mediterranean turtle shells specifically were less used to make trinkets, possibly because their keratinaceous covering renders them unsuitable for fine working; it isn’t sure for what purpose they were traded.

The truth is that at this stage the study couldn't contribute much to our understanding of human-turtle relations; about as much as a recipe for turtle soup – i.e., we like to eat them and their eggs, but we do know that we should pace our appetites. The loggerhead is vulnerable and the green sea turtle is endangered, says Dr. Ateret Shabtay, a marine ecologist at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. 

Look at it this way. In his book “Natural History” written about 77 C.E., Pliny the describes a reality that no longer exists: “Turtles are caught without any difficulty in the Phoenician Sea; and at a regular period of the year they come of their own accord into the river Eleutherus in a straggling multitude,” he wrote. He did also note, however, that certain cave dwellers regarded the turtles as sacred. None of this applies anymore, sadly for the turtles and sadly for posterity.

Tracking turtles in the past: zooarchaeological evidence for human-turtle interactions in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean.Credit: figure by F.J. Koolstra & C. and C. Çakırlar / Antiquity Publications Ltd,
Baby sea turtles taking a walk along the beach.Credit: Eyal Warshavsky / BauBau