TEL AVIV — Search the farthest regions of your highest kitchen cabinet, and you’ll probably find a can of soup you forgot all about. Canned food is a staple of modern life, and a convenience that is largely taken for granted, along with the myriad of other advancements that make our lives comfortable. Now, researchers from Tel Aviv University have discovered evidence that early humans began preserving their food — particularly bone marrow — much like we do with canned goods today as far back as 400,000 years ago.
Of course, humans of the late Lower Paleolithic period weren’t lucky enough to stock up on chicken noodle soup, but they were incredibly innovative with what they had to work with. These Paleolithic people saved animal bones for up to nine weeks before eating the nutritious bone marrow inside. The bones effectively functioned as cans, preserving the bone marrow.
These groundbreaking discoveries were made at Qesem Cave near Tel Aviv, in collaboration with an investigative team from Spain.
“Prehistoric humans brought to the cave selected body parts of the hunted animal carcasses,” explains Professor Jordi Rosell of the Universitat Rovira i Virgili and Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social, in a statement. “The most common prey was fallow deer, and limbs and skulls were brought to the cave while the rest of the carcass was stripped of meat and fat at the hunting scene and left there. We found that the deer leg bones, specifically the metapodials, exhibited unique chopping marks on the shafts, which are not characteristic of the marks left from stripping fresh skin to fracture the bone and extract the marrow.”
Bone marrow is chock full of nutrients, and was a dietary staple of prehistoric peoples living during this time period. However, all of the evidence collected up until now had indicated that bone marrow was always immediately eaten following the removal of soft tissue.
Researchers theorize that the deer bones were stored in caves covered in skin to aid in the preservation.
To come to their conclusions, the study’s authors utilized a unique combination of experimental and archeological methods to isolate and analyze marks on the discovered bones believed to be linked to dry skin removal. Then, they were able to determine the rate of marrow fat degradation, which indicated up to nine weeks of exposure. Basically, this method allowed the research team to estimate how long the bones were stored before being cracked open for eating.
“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,” comments Dr. Ruth Blasco of Tel Aviv University.
“The bones were used as ‘cans’ that preserved the bone marrow for a long period until it was time to take off the dry skin, shatter the bone and eat the marrow,” adds Professor Ran Barkai.
Paleolithic people have always been classified as hunter-gatherers who consumed whatever food they were able to catch immediately, and often endured long period of hunger during times when food sources were scarce. These findings potentially change that entire narrative.
“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,” explains Professor Avi Gopher.
Furthermore, this is the earliest evidence anywhere in the world of food preservation and storing food for consumption at a later time. It seems the ancient peoples of Qesem Cave were quite innovative, as prior discoveries inside the cave have revealed evidence of recycling, regular use of fire, and the cooking of meat.
“We assume that all this was because elephants, previously a major source of food for humans, were no longer available, so the prehistoric humans in our region had to develop and invent new ways of living,” Professor Barkai concludes. “This kind of behavior allowed humans to evolve and enter into a far more sophisticated kind of socioeconomic existence.”
The study is published in Science Advances.