When the elephants left the Levant some 400,000 years ago, early man used more brains than brawn to fill a mammoth caloric vacuum: After a 360-degree analysis of cuts upon deer footbones excavated from an Israeli cave, a new Tel Aviv University study has uncovered what the researchers say is the first evidence of food preservation.
The study, published on October 9 in the peer-reviewed open access Science Advances journal, proves through a most visceral methodology how settlers in Israel’s Qesem Cave intentionally stored bone marrow inside deer bones. Through a replication experiment, the scholars found this method kept the valuable fatty proteins safe from bacterial invaders for up to nine weeks.
“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,” said Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Avi Gopher in a statement.
The study, including the replication of the storage methods on freshly slaughtered deer, and was led by Dr. Ruth Blasco of both TAU’s Institute of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations and Spain’s Centro Nacional de Investigación Sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH). She was supported and aided by TAU’s Prof. Ran Barkai and Gopher, as well as colleagues from other international institutions.
According to Blasco, the ability to preserve food for future use, “marks a threshold for new modes of Palaeolithic human adaptation.”
Qesem Cave, located some 12 km east of Tel Aviv, was discovered in 2,000 during road works. According to the new study, “Bone marrow storage and delayed consumption at Middle Pleistocene Qesem Cave, Israel (420-200 ka),” excavations at the cave have produced a high quantity of burnt flint and bones, along with 13 human teeth.
After morphometrical analysis and 3D scanning, write the authors, researchers believe that the teeth from Qesem “are not of Homo erectus (sensu lato) but bear similarities with the late Pleistocene local populations of Skhul and Qafzeh, as well as some Neanderthal affinities. Therefore, the human fossils may belong to a yet unknown local hominin lineage of the Levant.”
The new study makes strides at dispelling the commonly held belief that Palaeolithic peoples were hunter gatherers who lived hand-to-mouth, say the scholars. Far from it, in fact: Using only stone-age technology, they were able to plan for a leaner future.
With a paucity of Tupperware or aluminum foil on hand, the bone marrow was stored inside the fallow deers’ own bones, which were left “wrapped” in the animals’ skins.
“We discovered that preserving the bone along with the skin, for a period that could last for many weeks, enabled early humans to break the bone when necessary and eat the still nutritious bone marrow,” adds Dr. Blasco.
In the replication experiment, the researchers used culled adult or prime-adult red deer (Cervus elaphus) from Spain’s Boumourt National Game Reserve. The rangers separated the metapodials, the long bones of the hand and feet, from the fore and hind limbs. According to the study, “This procedure is common among the reserve’s rangers when carrying out spring and winter population checks to prepare the carcasses for meat consumption; the metapodials are systematically rejected, since they contain no meat.”
Some 79 metapodials were used in a three-part series of experiments, which were engineered to reflect different environmental scenarios. The paper describes that the first two were performed in natural outdoor conditions in autumn and spring in a Mediterranean Pyrenean location.
Only the third scenario was aimed at reproducing Israel’s Mediterranean environmental conditions, write the authors. It was conducted at the Natural Science Museum (MNCN) in Madrid, Spain, in an indoor simulation of climate conditions.
According to the statement, the researchers found that the combination of archaeological and experimental results allowed them to discern the specific cutting marks linked to dry skin removal. Likewise, in the modern replication experiment, the scientists were able to determine a low rate of marrow fat degradation, including spoilage and caloric worth, of up to nine weeks of exposure.
Note the authors, “Marrow extraction is a low-cost activity relative to fat removal in that it only requires a few minutes to completely process a bone, particularly if the bone is not covered by flesh, as is the case of metapodials.” In addition to food, the product was also used by ancient man as a method of waterproofing skins, treating bowstrings, fuel for lighting, and tanning skins, write the authors.
“The bones were used as ‘cans’ that preserved the bone marrow for a long period until it was time to take of the dry skin, shatter the bone and eat the marrow,” said Barkai in a statement.
According to Barkai, the preservation methods arrived only after elephants were no longer available to humans as a food source.
“The prehistoric humans in our region had to develop and invent new ways of living. This kind of behavior allowed humans to evolve and enter into far more sophisticated kind of socioeconomic existence,” said Barkai.
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