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Middle Paleolithic Human Diet was More Diverse than Previously Thought

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Middle Paleolithic Human Diet was More Diverse than Previously Thought

Archaeologists from the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen have analyzed the ancient animal remains from Ghar-e Boof, a Middle Paleolithic site in the southern Zagros of Iran that was occupied between 81,000 to 45,000 years ago. Their results suggest that tortoises constituted important dietary supplements for Middle Paleolithic hominins, and the occupants of Ghar-e Boof also exploited carnivores and possibly birds on occasion.

Mata-González et al. found evidence for Middle Paleolithic hominin exploitation of carnivores and tortoises at the site of Ghar-e Boof. Image credit: Benoît Clarys.

“According to various studies, the hominins of the subsequent Middle Paleolithic, the period between 300,000 and 45,000 years ago, fed primarily on ungulates,” said Mario Mata-González, lead author of the study.

“However, there is increasing evidence that, at least occasionally, tortoises, birds, hares, fish, and carnivorous mammals were also on the menu of Neanderthals and their relatives.”

“Reconstructing the dietary habits of early hominins is one of the main objectives of archaeozoological studies, which shed light on the way our ancestors adapted to and interacted with different environments.”

In the new research, Mata-González and their colleagues carried out the first comprehensive analysis of a Middle Paleolithic faunal assemblage from the site of Ghar-e Boof in the southern Zagros.

Their main goals were: to determine whether hominins were the primary agents of assemblage accumulation or modifications at the site; and to reconstruct and evaluate hominin prey choice and subsistence strategies during the Middle Paleolithic.

“Not only are the Zagros Mountains the largest mountain range in Iran, but they are also considered a key geographical region for the study of human evolution in Southwest Asia during the Middle Paleolithic, in particular due to their heterogeneous topography and great environmental diversity,” Mata-González said.

“To date, archaeozoological finds from the Zagros Mountains have been almost exclusively limited to ungulates.”

“However, the results from the Ghar-e Boof site show that the diet of the local hominins also included carnivorous mammals and turtles.”

“More than 75% of the fauna at Ghar-e Boof consists of ungulates, from small to very large species,” he added.

“We mainly found remains of wild goats (Capra aegagrus) and gazelles (Gazella sp.).”

“But we were also able to document smaller numbers of wild boar (Sus scrofa), red deer (Cervus elaphus), horses (Equus sp.), and wild cattle (Bos primigenius).”

“In addition to ungulates, tortoises (Testudo sp.) are the most frequent species whose fossils we were able to recover from the approximately 18-m2 large excavation area.”

An artist’s impression of Homo heidelbergensis hunting birds. Image credit: Benoit Clarys.

An artist’s impression of Homo heidelbergensis hunting birds. Image credit: Benoit Clarys.

The authors also identified bones of various bird species and a few remains of carnivores, such as a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and a large predatory cat, probably a leopard (Panthera cf. pardus).

“Cuts and traces of processing on some of the fossil bones point to early humans as the originators,” they said.

“The tortoises were roasted in their shells before being eaten — this is how we interpret the scorch marks on the external surfaces of the fossil tortoise shells.”

“The faunal remains from Ghar-e Boof are the first evidence that small game animals such as tortoises and birds as well as carnivores were utilized by hominins in the southern Zagros Mountains,” said Professor Nicholas Conard, senior author of the study.

“Even if some of these species were consumed only sporadically, our findings show that the hominins of the Zagros region in the Middle Paleolithic had a more varied diet than previously assumed.”

“This is consistent with findings in other parts of Eurasia.”

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.


M. Mata-González et al. 2023. Evidence of diverse animal exploitation during the Middle Paleolithic at Ghar-e Boof (southern Zagros). Sci Rep 13, 19006; doi: 10.1038/s41598-023-45974-8

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