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Man stored food long-term as early as 400 years ago

Archaeologists from Tel Aviv University have for the first time uncovered unique cut marks on the bones of Yachrem from a magic cave near the head of the eye, indicating that the nutritious bone marrow was preserved inside skin-covered bones for a period of up to 9 weeks

Signs of dissection, cutting and shattering on limb bones of donkeys from Kesem Cave. Photo: Ruth Blasko
Signs of dissection, cutting and shattering on limb bones of donkeys from Kesem Cave.
Photo: Ruth Blasko

Researchers from the Department of Archeology of Tel Aviv University, led by Prof. Ran Barkai and Prof. Avi Gofer, uncovered a groundbreaking prehistoric find: bones with cut marks indicating that the bones were kept intact and covered in skin for a period of up to 9 weeks, and only when needed was the bone marrow extracted from them the feeder The findings are the earliest evidence, perhaps the earliest known to us, of planned food storage by early humans. They originate from a magic cave near Rosh Ha'Ein, where humans lived between 420,000 and 200,000 thousand years before our time.

The archaeozoologists Dr. Ruth Belasco from the Institute of Human Evolution in Burgos, and Prof. Jordi Rosell from the Fatal Institute for Early Human Ecology and Social Evolution in Tarragona, Spain, participated in the study, who performed the analysis of the animal bones from the cave. The article was published on Wednesday, 9.10.19 in the journal Science Advances.

"Magic Cave was discovered near Rosh Ha'Ein in 2000, during works to widen Highway 5; Since then we have been digging in it, and it does not stop yielding fascinating discoveries," says Prof. Barkai. "The cave is a kind of time capsule that has been preserved for about 200,000 years, from a relatively unknown period in human history - between 420,000 and 200,000 years before our time. Today it is considered one of the most important prehistoric sites in the world."

In the current study, the researchers used advanced research tools to examine bone fragments found in the cave. Prof. Barkai explains: "These are mainly bones of front and rear limbs of donkeys that were hunted in the area. We assume that the hunters reduced the hunting in the field, and carried only selected parts to the cave - mainly organs rich in meat and fat, limbs and skulls. Almost all the bones of the limbs were crushed to extract the bone marrow, which has an extremely high nutritional value. We are

Limb bones of a moose during storage for the purpose of performing the experiment. Photo: Ruth Blasko
Limb bones of a moose during storage for the purpose of performing the experiment. Photo: Ruth Blasko

We are unique and especially deep cutting marks on both ends of the lower bones of the limbs, which are not known from any other site in the world. We asked to find out their meaning."

"Like in a can"

After many tests in the laboratory, the researchers came to the conclusion that the unique marks were created by a flint tool in a process designed to strip dry skin from the bone. "Immediately after the hunt, it is easy to peel the skin from the animal, but after a period, when the skin is already dry, the operation is much more difficult and requires special effort," says Prof. Barkai. "Based on the massive cut marks on the bones, we hypothesized that the hunted donkey legs were stored in the cave while they were still covered in skin, with the aim of preserving the bone marrow inside in the best possible way. Only after some time, after the skin is already dry, is it peeled from the bone, and the bone is crushed in order to consume the bone marrow." A series of experiments carried out on contemporary moose bones showed that the bone marrow can be preserved in an edible condition inside a limb covered with skin, for a period of up to 9 weeks, and that the dismemberment marks that the researchers performed in order to remove the dry skin are the same as those discovered in the Magic Cave."

Signs of dissection, cutting and shattering on limb bones of donkeys from Kesem Cave. Photo: Ruth Blasko
Signs of dissection, cutting and shattering on limb bones of donkeys from Kesem Cave. Photo: Ruth Blasko

"It can be said that the inhabitants of Merat Kesem were the first in the world to use the limbs of donkeys as in a can," concludes Prof. Barkai. "Our findings are the earliest evidence of a technique that preserves food in a planned way for the long term. This means that, contrary to the assumption that was accepted until today, the cave dwellers did not immediately consume all the food they hunted, but thought ahead, and their dependence on daily hunting decreased. We believe that this ability, along with the earliest use of fire for roasting meat, which was also discovered in a magic cave, is a response to a fundamental change that occurred at that time: the disappearance of the elephants from the area. Previously, elephants were an unrivaled source of fat and meat, and when they disappeared, humans had to find other solutions, and to produce sufficient and high-quality food from much smaller animals - mainly donkeys. The findings of Merat Kesem indicate a very significant technological and cultural transformation in this period of time, and food preservation is one of the changes that allowed the human race to continue to prosper in our region for very long periods of time. It can be said that from then until today humans have been preserving food, and the beginning of this important behavior was in Kesem Cave about 420,000 years ago."

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