Tortoises as a dietary supplement: A view from the Middle Pleistocene site of Qesem Cave, Israel

Ruth Blasco*, Jordi Rosell, Krister T. Smith, Lutz Christian Maul, Pablo Sañudo, Ran Barkai, Avi Gopher

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

46 Scopus citations


Dietary reconstructions can offer an improved perspective on human capacities of adaptation to the environment. New methodological approaches and analytical techniques have led to a theoretical framework for understanding how human groups used and adapted to their local environment. Faunal remains provide an important potential source of dietary information and allow study of behavioural variation and its evolutionary significance. Interest in determining how hominids filled the gaps in large prey availability with small game or what role small game played in pre-Upper Palaeolithic societies is an area of active research. Some of this work has focused on tortoises because they represent an important combination of edible and non-edible resources that are easy to collect if available. The exploitation of these slow-moving animals features prominently in prey choice models because the low handling costs of these reptiles make up for their small body size. Here, we present new taphonomic data from two tortoise assemblages extracted from the lower sequence of the Middle Pleistocene site of Qesem Cave, Israel (420-300 ka), with the aim of assessing the socio-economic factors that may have led to the inclusion of this type of resource in the human diets. We show that hominid damage on large tortoise specimens from Qesem Cave is not unusual and that evidence such as cut marks, percussion marks and consistent patterns of burning suggests established sequences of processing, including cooking in the shell, defleshing, and direct percussion to access the visceral content. These matters make it possible not only to assess the potential role of tortoises as prey, but also to evaluate collecting behaviour in the resource acquisition systems and eco-social strategies at the Acheulo-Yabrudian Cultural Complex (AYCC) in the southern Levant.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)165-182
Number of pages18
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
StatePublished - 1 Feb 2016


FundersFunder number
CARE Archaeological Foundation
Thyssen Foundation
Wenner-Gren Foundation
Leakey Foundation
Fundación Séneca19434/PI/14
Dan David Prize
Agència de Gestió d'Ajuts Universitaris i de Recerca2014 SGR 900, 2014/100573
Israel Science Foundation
Ministerio de Ciencia e InnovaciónCGL2012-38434-C03-03, CGL-BOS-2012-34717, CGL2012-38358


    • Levant
    • Middle Pleistocene
    • Qesem Cave
    • Small game
    • Taphonomy
    • Tortoises


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