Turtle soup is considered a delicacy in East Asia today, but it turns out early humans also had a taste for tortoise flesh.

According to a study published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews, a new discovery in the Qesem Cave near Tel Aviv in Israel showed that tortoises were used to supplement diets 400,000 years ago.

Researchers uncovered evidence that early humans also ate tortoises on top of the vegetal material and big game they have been previously believed to consume. The findings also offered direct proof that "modern" skills and tools were used to prepare the tortoises for eating.

"Our discovery adds a really rich human dimension - a culinary and therefore cultural depth to what we already know about these people," said Ran Barkai from the Tel Aviv University and one of the authors of the study.

As tortoise specimens were discovered all over the cave across different levels, this indicates that tortoise meat was eaten throughout the course of the early human living. Once the specimens were exhumed, they showed striking marks reflecting the way the tortoises were processed and eaten.

According to Barkai, dental evidence has shown that the inhabitants of Qesem Cave had consumed vegetal food. Now, tortoises can be added to the list of food early humans ate at the time, even though they don't offer the same amount of calories as fallow deer.

Early humans who lived in Qesem mainly hunted medium and large game like cattle and wild horses, aside from fallow deer, obtaining large quantities of meat and fat that provided the calories they needed to survive.

Aside from a broader diet, the discovery also hints on the division of labor that the cave's inhabitants followed. As tortoises required drastically less effort to acquire compared to large game, their preparation may have been assigned to children or the elderly. According to the specimens, the tortoises were roasted in their shells.

After this discovery, the researchers have moved on to assessing bird bones found in the Qesem Cave.

Ruth Blasco, Avi Gopher, Jordi Rosell, Pablo Sañudo, Krister Smith and Lutz Christian Maul also contributed to the study.

Photo: Justin Ennis | Flickr

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