Just ducky

A week or two ago, I was pointed by a press release to some recent research from Bolomor Cave, Spain, where the levels occupied by early/pre-Neandertals have been yielding interesting evidence about diet breadth. The pointer was about “bird consumption”, but in this case the birds are all ducks – genus Aythya, which includes living canvasbacks, for you duck hunters out there. The reference is a newish paper in Journal of Archaeological Science by Ruth Blasco and Josep Fernández Peris.

Something like 155,000 years ago, some hominins brought 8 ducks into the cave, cut them up (leaving cutmarks) and roasted some of them (leaving bone with burned and charred ends where the meat isn’t).

Not so terribly surprising, but then we don’t have a lot of sites of equivalent age where there’s good evidence of repeated bird consumption. The cave also has a lot of rabbit bones, and some tortoises.

Blasco (2008) described the evidence for tortoise consumption from a somewhat later level of the cave (Level IV), dating to before 121,000 years ago. That paper included the gruesome work of identifying human toothmarks that gnawed off the ends of several of the long bones. They also roasted some of the tortoises, apparently before disarticulation.

What I found an interesting element of both papers was the close analysis of the application of fire in the processing of the remains. Naturally from this distance in time it isn’t possible to discover everything. But together with experimental archaeology and taphonomy, it may be possible in many cases to test for the presence of ethnographically-attested models of butchering, cooking, and post-consumption processing of the remains.

This means that where the record is good, you can also test for the absence of such behaviors. I was reminded last week that I haven’t yet posted my review of Richard Wrangham’s book, Catching Fire. In light of several requests, I’m buffing off the rough edges now and I’ll post it later this week. When it comes to testing Wrangham’s hypothesis – in brief, that “cooking made us human” – it is precisely the kind of close archaeological work pursued in these papers that is necessary.

Which makes it interesting that, in these rather recent archaeological levels with clear evidence of cooking, there is good evidence that several of the ducks and tortoises weren’t cooked before humans ate them.

References:

Blasco R. 2008. Human consumption of tortoises at Level IV of Bolomor Cave (Valencia, Spain). J Archaeol Sci 2839-2848. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2008.05.013

Blasco R, Fernández Peris J. 2009. Middle Pleistocene bird consumption at Level XI of Bolomor Cave (Valencia, Spain). J Archaeol Sci 36:2213-2223. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2009.06.006