While the slimy critters may not be everyone’s cup of tea, snails took the fancy of humans living in Spain some 30,000 years ago, a new study has found.
Researchers have known for some time that humans have been munching on gastropods (snails and slugs) for thousands of years, but when we started indulging on these mollusks has been a mystery.
“Even though land snails are very present in paleolithic sites, the interpretation of snails as a food resource is very complicated,” lead author Javier Fernández-López de Pablo told Live Science. That’s because snail shells around ancient human remains could be the result of hungry birds, rather than remnants of our diet. Furthermore, these animals are ubiquitous and live in the dirt, so finding their remains is hardly surprising. However, this archeological site had various telltale signs that humans were indeed cooking up these grubs.
The discovery was made by archeologists excavating a site in Cova de la Barriada (Benidorm), Spain. As described in PLOS ONE, they found concentrated amounts of land snail (Iberus alonensis) shells alongside stone tools, fireplaces and other animal remains. After analyzing the shells, which were burnt, the researchers discovered that the snails were roasted for a prolonged period in ambers of pine and juniper, delicious. Furthermore, the 112 snail samples were relatively large and about the same size, indicating that the humans were picky about the snails they chose to eat.
By comparing the remains with modern specimens, the researchers were able to estimate that the snails were all over 1 year old. According to the team, this suggests that the humans may have had some knowledge of the snails’ reproductive cycle and were consuming these animals sustainably in order to conserve the species.
The researchers aren’t sure why humans started eating snails at this time, but it appears to coincide with a period when populations in Iberia were undergoing various transformations and began experimenting with art. It’s therefore likely that this is another example of humans experimenting as societies began to change. Opting for this strategy of diet diversification would have also facilitated population growth, Fernández said.
[Header image "Big Snail in Point Reyes," By Natalie McNear, via Flickr, used in accordance with CC BY-NC 2.0]