Early Humans Stored Marrow In Bones Like Canned Food 400,000 Years Ago

This is marrow inside a metapodial bone after six weeks of storage. Dr. Ruth Blasco/AFTAU

Ancient humans may have been more complex than the science world has previously given them credit for. Evidence from Israel’s Qesem Cave points to prehistoric humans who prepared and stored animal bones for the consumption of marrow in times of food scarcity.

Animal fat found in bone marrow and grease is a significant source of nutrition with a higher calorific value than protein or carbohydrates. Humans from 400,000 years ago had the capability to store bones from deer and other prey for up to nine weeks to consume during lean times, according to new research published in Science Advances.

"Bone marrow constitutes a significant source of nutrition and as such was long featured in the prehistoric diet," said study author Ran Barkai in a statement. "Until now, evidence has pointed to the immediate consumption of marrow following the procurement and removal of soft tissues. In our paper, we present evidence of storage and delayed consumption of bone marrow at Qesem Cave."

To come to their findings, researchers at Tel Aviv University mimicked the skinning and storage process they would have used and analyzed 273 bone fragments from 37 deer arm bones. When controlling for exposure time and environmental factors, they determined that just a small amount of marrow fat would degrade over the course of two months, allowing ample time for early humans to return to their cache and break bone, as it were, with their comrades.

Chop marks, cortical scars, and chipped marks seen on the bones. Science Advances

"The bones were used as ‘cans’ that preserved the bone marrow for a long period until it was time to take off the dry skin, shatter the bone and eat the marrow," said Barkai.

Archaeological analysis of the cut marks on the bones recovered from the cave differed from traditional skinning and stripping marks and instead indicated blunt chopping had occurred, which was likely to have been used to fracture the bone and extract the marrow.

It was previously believed that early humans were hunter-gatherers who ate their food as they caught it. The findings suggest that they had foresight into food preparations that would allow them to withstand times with less prey availability or of intensified weather. The researchers write that their findings provide the earliest evidence in the world that Paleolithic humans stored food for later.

Qesem Cave is the nation’s oldest human habitation site and has led to a number of previous discoveries, including one of the first recorded people who regularly controlled and used fire.

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