Early Humans in Prehistoric Israel Were Picky About Where Their Deer Came From

What appears to be a prehistoric yen for quality eats has led to enlightenment about how early humans made use of Qesem Cave in central Israel from 400,000 years ago

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Persian fallow deer being released into the Israeli north.
Persian fallow deer being released into the Israeli north.Credit: Emil Salman
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Deer that eat different things taste different. This also applies to the horse, the cow and other herbivorous quadrupeds – note the advice on how Japanese Wagyu cattle are fed for the best results. The difference in flavor may be subtle, but some people swear by it. In any case, it makes sense: Just consider how body odor varies with diet.

Now a groundbreaking paper, published in the Journal of Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, suggests that the awareness of how a herbivore’s diet affects its flavor and other qualities goes back hundreds of thousands of years.

Moreover, the archaeologists believe that they have identified seasonality in the use of cave space by early humans – specifically, Qesem Cave in central Israel. They also deduced that different areas of the cave were used for different tasks, much as people today may have a bedroom, living room, kitchen, and so on.

Though occupants came and went, traditions were preserved over eons: breaking bones for marrow extraction in one place, skinning and working hide in another, making stone tools in a third, cooking in yet another spot.

The truly strange revelation is that the animal cadavers brought to the different cave areas apparently had different diets. This indicates that they were hunted in specific places for specific uses.

Excavations at Qesem Cave, about 12 kilometers east of Tel Aviv.Credit: Ran Barkai

Deer brought to the “kitchen” – the hearth – had a different diet than deer brought to the area of the cave “where they smashed bones to get at their marrow.” Ditto for the horses. The team avers that this was a pattern, not a coincidence.

The extraordinary discovery that the hominins living in Qesem Cave may have been dead picky about the origin of their roast herbivore is the result of an international collaboration, between Florent Rivals and Ruth Blasco of the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution, Jordi Rosell of Tarragona University, and Bar Efrati, Avi Gopher and Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University.

The Paleolithic menu

Qesem Cave, located almost 12 kilometers east of Tel Aviv, was found in the year 2000 while building a highway overpass for Route 5. This happens a lot in Israel: groundworks resulting in extraordinary discoveries. Following the accidental discovery of Qesem Cave, much research was conducted and it was deduced that the cave was occupied from about 420,000 to 20,000 years ago.

The part of the study led by Prof. Rivals, which was based on an analysis of animal teeth, discovered something new about the cave’s occupation: It was apparently seasonal, as opposed to permanent.

That doesn’t mean the cave was the hominin’s summer getaway. The occupants returned to Qesem throughout the year, explains Rivals, who among other things is an expert on analyzing fossil dentition, including of the Persian fallow deer and horse, which were favorites on the Paleolithic menu.

Some of the remains of flint tools found in Qesem cave.Credit: Ariel David

Teeth can shed light on the herbivore’s age – for instance, baby teeth as opposed to worn-down molars of a doddering aged deer. They may also show what the animal ate. Different plants leave different “signals” on the teeth. The more abrasive the plant, the more the molars will erode. Grass for instance is relatively erosive, Rivals explains.

One wonders why it matters today what the animals dined on hundreds of thousands of years ago. The team explains.

You call this a steak?

Frankly, one reason some Israelis scorn shrimp isn’t kashrut but the fact that they’re bottom-dwelling scum scavengers. If the diminutive arthropods only supped on seaweed, they might be served up without a second thought. We sort of care what our prey eats.

At Qesem, analysis of the teeth indicates that the hominins were just as fussy.

A cave painting of aurochs in Lascaux CaveCredit: Prof saxx

Could the dietary distinctions regarding dead deer could be an artifact of resolution – how closely the archaeologists today can pin-point when they lived and ate? Maybe during one period in time, the area around Qesem was grassy and in another period a few years or millennia later, it was brushy, resulting in deer with different signals in their teeth, not because of differences in hunting ground but differences in time?

Barkai explains that of course the team studying the cave can’t achieve resolution of a point in time. However, they can determine that different areas of the cave were exploited for different purposes in roughly the same time; and that the deer (and horses) in different areas of the cave ate different things, and all this seems to have been happening in the sametime frame.

They can also infer the season of the hunt: If Plant A is in season in winter and the deer ate Plant A, one may conclude that the deer was hunted in winter.

The Persian fallow deer (Dama mesopotamicus) once thronged the Middle East. They were dearly beloved as a meal from the dawn of human prehistory until they went extinct, which they did everywhere except for isolated pockets in Iran.

Horses near the Sea of Galilee.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Dr. Ran Barkai.Credit: Pavel Shrago

It’s worth noting that the hominins may have hunted grass-fed deer for eating and deer that ate leaves for fur (for example), but they would surely have utilized every scrap of their prey. If the hominins were after the hide, they would seek out the deer in a specific place where their fur was softer or shinier, etc. – and they would process it in the skinning or bone-smashing area of the cave.

They would still eat the meat, though, possibly while insulting its inferior qualities in proto-Gordon Ramsay style.

“We don’t know of anything like this anywhere else in the world, certainly not so ancient,” Barkai says.

Paleolithic feinschmeckers

It can be challenging to infer cultural references at a distance of hundreds of thousands of years. But the hominins of Qesem Cave had brains roughly as big as ours, so if the team is right and these early humans were fussy about their hunting grounds for animals exploited for different purposes, we modern humans can relate. You might sneer that a deer is a deer is a deer, but there’s a reason people pay a premium for Kobe beef. Rivals also points out that the flavor of buffalo has been claimed to differ based on the animals’ habitat.

Ultimately this seemingly inexplicable fussiness may have evinced adaptability, the team explains, writing: “Animals from different hunting grounds were wisely used to maximize the potential of specific habitats in the environment. This study is an additional testimony to the ingenuity of the cave inhabitants that allowed them to persistently use the cave for a prolonged period in a year.” It simply makes horse sense.

Today there are fallow deer in Israel but they’re imports. In the south they went extinct during the time of the Natufian culture, between 15,000 to 9,000 years ago, possibly due to the combined pressures of changing climate and predation pressure. Come the modern era, captive deer were brought from Iran, when it was still on speaking terms with Israel. Some of those were released into the wild and the rest is modern history. It bears noting that hunting the deer is categorically illegal but many die in traffic accidents.

Persian fallow deer were a dearly beloved meal for Paleolithic homininsCredit: Tel Aviv Zoo archives

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