On a lush lakeshore in northern Israel 60,000 years ago, prehistoric hunter-gatherers were augmenting their diet of aurochs, deer and weeds with smelly freshwater turtles, archaeologists have discovered.
Prehistoric hominins had been known to feast on tortoises, a terrestrial reptile, well before Man was a gleam in the Creator's eye. In Israel, tortoise bones associated with prehistoric beings go back 1.5 million years, though archaeologists argue over whether the beings at Ubeidiya actually ate the tortoises. They probably did at Gesher Benot Ya’akov about 780,000 years ago. In east Africa, evidence of tortoise consumption by early-humans goes back as much as 2.5 million years. Not turtles, though.
As scientists have pointed out, hunting down an elephant with spears is exhausting and dangerous, while hunting down a tortoise involves seeing it, bending over and picking it up. It's low-risk and they taste fantastic. Why would the ancients even bother trying to catch the friskier, faster, slimier and malodorous turtle lurking in the swamp?
Well, the average Israeli Western Caspian Turtle is a little bigger than the average Israeli Mediterranean Spur-thighed Tortoise, so there's that. And probably because the people living at what is today the Nahal Mahanayeem outlet to the banks of the Jordan River, as it descends from the Hula Valley, could.
"The tortoise is vegetarian and lives on land, while turtles are carnivorous, sometimes scavenge, and live in swamps," explains Prof. Gonen Sharon of the Tel-Hai College, co-author on the study published in Journal of Archaeological Science Reports.
So yes, relative to tortoises, turtles do not smell sweet. To us. Who knows what they smelled like to prehistoric people? Also, as Sharon points out that first of all, the truth is that people will eat anything. Need we say more than lutefisk and casu marzu (maggot cheese)?
The ancients may not have felt the turtle's lifestyle or aroma to be objectionable. So all that remained was to catch some and cook them. And since they were harder to catch than tortoises, that's probably why we see tortoise remains going back millions of years, while the turtle remains found at the Hula site are among the oldest known, says the team.
Giant cows and fire
Who were these ancients living there 60,000 years ago, anyway? "We don't know," Sharon says. "But we archaeologists in Israel believe it was the time of the Neanderthals, the final stage of the middle Paleolithic Stone Age, just before anatomically modern humans appeared."
And yes, the Neanderthals controlled fire, he says: Sharon for one is sure the turtles had been cooked, though the evidence is indirect. That evidence is basically that they found a lot of signs of fire (in all the Neanderthal dwellings found in Israel, he adds).
It bears adding that freshwater turtles and terrestrial tortoises live in very different environments, and the chance that they would have gathered on the banks of the Jordan River in the years of yore, for no particular reason, is not big. The fact that they are found together in a single square meter of excavation means they had to have been brought there by the prehistoric hunter-gatherers.
Make no mistake. Neither turtle nor tortoise was the main course for the Hula Neanderthals, or whoever they were. Going by the bones the archaeologists found, they ate mainly aurochs, which were giant bovines three times the size of today's cows, Sharon says.
The Hula site was in fact not a home base but a hunting station, Sharon says. "The main thing they did at the site was hunt, and butcher the aurochs. The turtles were for the sauce," he jokes.
Another extraordinary feature of the site is its remarkable state of preservation (thanks to rapid cover with mud as the Hula lake rose), which enabled the archaeologists to deduce how the ancients procured, processed, and consumed the shelled reptiles. It was the job of the lead author, Rebecca Biton of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to pore over the masses of bone fragments taken from the sediment and study them.
"She can say what animal it came from, and using the microscope, can see and differentiate knife and predators' teeth," says Sharon.
It was Biton's research, which included actually rebuilding a 60,000-year-old turtle's shell from fragments, that showed how the ancients butchered the beasts. It wasn't pretty.
The reptiles were torn apart, then the bridge connecting the carapace and plastron was shattered. Stone tools were used to separate visceral tissues from the peripheral bones in order to detach the meat, as we can see from fine marks on the shell fragments and bones, the team says. That's not terribly different from how testudines are prepared for dinner today.