Archaeologists reveal ancient Israel ‘prehistoric snack’

The findings of their research were published in the academic journal Scientific Reports on Wednesday.

A yellow pit viper snake drinks water droplets on a flower at the Dhupguri snake park (photo credit: REUTERS)
A yellow pit viper snake drinks water droplets on a flower at the Dhupguri snake park
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A new delicatessen item needs to be added to the specialties that prehistoric people in Israel consumed: snakes. Ancient populations living in the Mount Carmel area around 15,000 years ago ate reptiles, such as snakes and lizards, in addition to birds and small game, according to a group of researchers from the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa.
Their findings were published in the academic journal Scientific Reports on Wednesday.
“Our project was inspired not by theories but by the work in the field,” Dr. Reuben Yeshurun, co-author of the paper together with Ma’ayan Lev and Mina Weinstein-Evron, told The Jerusalem Post. “From the beginning, our excavations in the site of el-Wad Terrace revealed lots of bones of snakes and lizards, usually the vertebras. We found them almost every day. We became really curious to understand if people ate them or if they had gotten there by some other process.”
The site, as is the case with many prehistoric ones, has a mixture of finds connected to human settlement, such as stone tools and remains of eaten animals, mixed with items that accumulated naturally, he said. The reptiles’ bones could have been part of both groups.
Excavation at el-Wad Terrace in the Carmel. (Photo credit: Reuven Yeshurum / University of Haifa)Excavation at el-Wad Terrace in the Carmel. (Photo credit: Reuven Yeshurum / University of Haifa)
The project became the subject of Lev’s master’s thesis and PhD dissertation. Since almost no scientific literature existed to explore the question, the scientists had to develop new methodologies.
They analyzed the bones and conducted several taphonomic studies to identify the processes that affected their decay, comparing the results with other experiments carried out on modern bones to see how processes such as roasting, digesting, trampling or just exposing them to different weather conditions might have impacted them.
“We roasted modern snakes’ vertebras in the oven; we tried to chop them and so forth,” Yeshurun said.
The group concluded that the reptiles were consumed by the community.
“On some vertebras we found in the site we were even able to identify signs of the use of flint knives, indicating that probably the snakes were butchered,” the archaeologist said.
El-Wad Terrace is a prominent Natufian site. Natufian communities lived in the area in the late Epipaleolithic period, some 11,700-15,000 years ago, during the transition between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic eras, which was reflected in their lifestyle.
“They were still hunter-gatherers and did not know how to produce food, but they still lived in permanent small communities” the researchers wrote. “For this reason, they really needed to come up with numerous methods to procure food. One of the things they did was capturing and eating almost everything. Now we can add a new item to their menu.”
They also identified a distinction between venomous and nonvenomous species of snakes whose bones were uncovered at the site. While they found conclusive evidence that nonpoisonous species were eaten, they could not detect any such signs in the remains of poisonous species, such as vipers, which likely died of natural causes.
“Our next step will be to apply the methods we developed to more contexts,” Yeshurun told the Post. “Now that we have convincing evidence from one important site, we can look into exploring the patterns to understand how long ago humans in Israel started to eat snakes and lizards and whether they continued to do so later on.”
“At the moment, we are already looking into a different Natufian site on Mount Carmel, not a settlement but a burial cave,” he said. “It is going to be interesting to see whether we reach similar findings on the bones collected there.”