The real Paleo Diet included turtle meat

israel turtle flippers

It’s all the rage. Eating Paleo, or like Paleolithic man has benefits, adherents to the New Age diet claim (here are 5 steps to going on a Paleo Diet). But while Paleo people cite red meat as part of the mainstay of their diet (eating what ancient Paleolithic man was supposed to eat), I have never heard of turtle. But it may be time to update the diet.

While turtles and tortoises are rarely eaten today except in East Asia (and by Egyptians) where turtle soup is a delicacy, they were once a staple diet item, according to new research out of Israel.

Please don’t consider this an excuse to eat an endangered animal, but a new discovery at Qesem Cave near Tel Aviv, ancient man had a thing for tortoise- maybe as a starter or as a dessert. The 400,000-year-old site indicates that early man enjoyed eating turtles in addition to large game and vegetables, the researchers found. These early Paleolithic people even had the “modern” tools and skills employed to prepare it. See etchings on turtle bones below.


The study was led by Ruth Blasco of the Centro Nacional de Investigacion Sobre la Evolucion Humana (CENIEH), Spain, and Tel Aviv University’s Institute of Archaeology.

“Until now, it was believed that Paleolithic humans hunted and ate mostly large game and vegetal material,” said Prof. Ran Barkai from TAU. “Our discovery adds a really rich human dimension — a culinary and therefore cultural depth to what we already know about these people.”

The research team discovered tortoise specimens strewn all over the cave at different levels, indicating that they were consumed over the entire course of the early human 200,000-year inhabitation. Once exhumed, the bones revealed striking marks that reflected the methods the early humans used to process and eat the turtles.


“We know by the dental evidence we discovered earlier that the Qesem inhabitants ate vegetal food,” said Barkai. “Now we can say they also ate tortoises, which were collected, butchered and roasted, even though they don’t provide as many calories as fallow deer, for example.”

According to the study, Qesem inhabitants (see the site below, along the highway for context) hunted mainly medium and large game such as wild horses, fallow deer and cattle. This diet provided large quantities of fat and meat, which supplied the calories necessary for human survival. Until recently, it was believed that only the later Homo sapiens enjoyed a broad diet of vegetables and large and small animals. But evidence found at the cave of the exploitation of small animals over time, this discovery included, suggests otherwise.


“In some cases in history, we know that slow-moving animals like tortoises were used as a ‘preserved’ or ‘canned’ food,” said Dr. Blasco. “Maybe the inhabitants of Qesem were simply maximizing their local resources. In any case, this discovery adds an important new dimension to the knowhow, capabilities and perhaps taste preferences of these people.”


According to Prof. Gopher, the new evidence also raises possibilities concerning the division of labor at Qesem Cave. “Which part of the group found and collected the tortoises?” Prof. Gopher said. “Maybe members who were not otherwise involved in hunting large game, who could manage the low effort required to collect these reptiles — perhaps the elderly or children.”

“According to the marks, most of the turtles were roasted in the shell,” Prof. Barkai added. “In other cases, their shells were broken and then butchered using flint tools. The humans clearly used fire to roast the turtles. Of course they were focused on larger game, but they also used supplementary sources of food — tortoises — which were in the vicinity.”

(Image of Ran Barkai, above NY Times)

Read more on Paleolithic-type eating:
Eat the Whole Animal: Lamb’s Testicles
Whole Animal Cooking
Making Smen the Old Fashioned Way

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