Snail eating was taking place in Spain during the Stone Age by neolithic cavemen, based on new findings that could shed light on the diet of our ancient ancestors. If this study is confirmed, this would reveal the consumption of snails by humans 10,000 years before previously believed.

Snails were common in many areas of Europe starting in the Late Pleistocene age, lasting between 126,000 and nearly 14,000 years ago. Paleontologists are uncertain exactly when and how snails became part of the human diet.

Cova de la Barriada in Spain was the site of an expedition that uncovered snail shells dated between 26,900 and 31,000 years ago. The shells were discovered next to the remnants of ancient fireplaces, and were charred as if they had been roasted in fire.

Discovery of this previously-unknown food source suggests that humans of that era enjoyed a more varied diet than previous research suggested.

Snails, well-known as a delicacy in France, were not eaten in large numbers until 100 centuries after the Paleolithic escargot was consumed in the area that would later become Spain.

Analysis of the Stone Age culinary remains revealed wood used in the fireplace consist of pine and juniper, and the snails were cooked below 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Several tools were also discovered around the fireplace, as well as the remains of animals that were likely used for food.

Snails are rich in several nutrients that would have helped keep early humans alive and healthy, including protein, iron, copper, zinc and vitamin A.

"What this suggests is that these groups [of humans] had already opted for a strategy of diet diversification that allowed them to increase their population," Javier Fernández-López de Pablo, researcher at the Catalan Institute of Human Palaeoecology and Evolution, said.

Paleontologists are uncertain why early humans in Spain started to eat snails so much earlier than people living in other areas of Europe.

Iberus alonensis, the snail found near the ancient fireplaces, later became a popular delicacy in the Roman Empire. The shelled animal makes their home on dry soil, under lavender thyme, and rosemary plants. The species is still served in area restaurants today, usually known as mount snails.

Neanderthals, early hominids who contributed a few percent of human code to our modern species, may have consumed sea slugs. In addition to this variety of mollusks, our distant cousins may have also eaten nuts and wild vegetables.

The role of snails in the diet of ancient humans in the Late Pleistocene period was detailed in the online journal Plos One.

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