Israeli researchers discover prehistoric humans 'canned' bone marrow

The discovery is the earliest evidence of delayed consumption.

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October 9, 2019 21:17
3 minute read.
Israeli researchers discover prehistoric humans 'canned' bone marrow

Skin removal on the proximal part of the metapodials and tendons removal in combination with skinning during the experimentation. (photo credit: DR. RUTH BLASCO)

Researchers from Tel Aviv University and Spain have discovered the earliest known evidence of the storage and delayed consumption of animal bone marrow – some 400,000 years ago by prehistoric humans near Tel Aviv.

The scientists say the findings at Qesem Cave, the site of numerous major Old Stone Age discoveries from the late Lower Palaeolithic period, provides direct evidence that early Palaeolithic people saved nutritious animal bones for up to nine weeks before eating them at the site.

The study, published Wednesday in scientific journal Science Advances, was led by Dr. Ruth Blasco of Tel Aviv University's Institute of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations and the Centro Nacional de Investigación Sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), together with Prof. Ran Barkai and Prof. Avi Gopher and researchers from Spanish institutions including Rovira i Virgili University and the University of Lleida.

"Bone marrow constitutes a significant source of nutrition and as such was long featured in the prehistoric diet," said Prof. Barkai. "Until now, evidence has pointed to immediate consumption of marrow following the procurement and removal of soft tissues. In our paper, we present evidence of storage and delayed consumption of bone marrow at Qesem Cave."

Both bone marrow and grease have attracted the attention of human groups since prehistoric times as a significant source of nutrition, the researchers said, especially for communities are almost entirely dependent on animal products with little to no source of carbohydrates.

The discovery of the earliest evidence of delayed consumption, Blasco said, "offers insight into the socioeconomics of the humans who lived at Qesem. It also marks a threshold for new modes of Palaeolithic human adaptation."

Previous discoveries of innovative prehistoric human behavior found at Qesem Cave, 12 km. east of Tel Aviv, include recycling of tools, the regular use of fire, and cooking and roasting meat.

According to the researchers, prehistoric humans brought selected body parts of hunted animal carcasses to the cave. The most common prey was fallow deer, although birds, tortoises and even carnivores have also been found.

"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," said Prof. Rosell of Rovira i Virgili University and the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES).

"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."

The deer metapodials – the long bones of the feet or metatarsals – were likely kept at the cave covered in skin, the researchers said, to facilitate the preservation of the bone marrow for consumption when needed.

The team of researchers evaluated the preservation of bone marrow using an experimental series on deer, controlling exposure time and environmental parameters, together with chemical analyses.

Combining archaeological and experimental results, they were able to identify specific marks linked to dry skin removal and thereby determine a low rate of marrow fat degradation of up to nine weeks of exposure.

"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," said Prof. Barkai.

Until recently, the researchers said, it was believed that the Paleolithic people lived hand-to-mouth as hunter gatherers, consuming whatever they caught and going hungry for long periods when sources of food were scarce.

"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 Gopher.

According to Barkai, the lack of availability of elephants – previously a major source of food for humans – created a need for innovative storage of nutritious food items and new ways of living.

"This kind of behavior allowed humans to evolve and enter into far more sophisticated kind of socioeconomic existence," Barkai said.


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