Ancient garbage dumps full of snail shells found along the Red Sea show that seafood was on the menu for people as they embarked on treacherous migrations from Africa to Arabia around 5,000 years ago.
On the Farasan Islands of the Red Sea, a prehistoric pit stop along ancient migratory routes between Africa to Arabia, archaeologists have discovered the presence of large pits containing up to 15,000 shells of sea snails that found themselves in the area between 4,780 to 7,360 years ago. Reported in the journal Quaternary International, the evidence suggests that the shellfish sustained a population of people trekking out of Africa to Eurasia around 5,000 years ago.
This was an extremely arid period of drought in the region when there would have been slim pickings for the newcomers' diet needs on land. In the waters, however, an abundance of seafood was able to provide much-needed sustenance for the weary travelers.
"Our data shows that at a time when many other resources on land were scarce, people could rely on their locally available shellfish,” Dr Niklas Hausmann, lead author and Associate Researcher at the Department of Archaeology at the University of York in the UK, said in a statement.
“Previous studies have shown that people of the southern Red Sea ate shellfish year-round and over periods of thousands of years. We now also know that this resource was not depleted by them, but shellfish continued to maintain a healthy population," added Hausmann.
By looking at the shape and size of the mollusk shells, the researchers were able to work out how much strain the hungry travelers were putting on the wild populations of sea snails. A large proportion of shells that don’t appear to have reached maturity suggests the population was struggling, but the shells found at the numerous pits in the Farasan Islands were shown to be big and fully formed, indicating they were plentiful at the time and “remained unaffected by human harvesting pressure.”
“Our study suggests that Red Sea shorelines had the resources necessary to provide a passage for prehistoric people,” explained Hausmann.
“The availability of food resources plays an important role in understanding the feasibility of past human migrations – hunter-gatherer migrations would have required local food sources and periods of aridity could, therefore, have restricted these movements.”
Prehistoric humans are often imagined to be carnivorous cavemen who ate a meaty diet of mammoth, saber-tooth tigers, and other prehistoric delicacies, but seafood has actually long been a fundamental source of nutrition. There’s also solid evidence that Neandtherhals, our extinct hominin cousins, actively harvested seafood 106,000 years ago.