Archaeologists Found the World’s Oldest Leftovers

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At Qesem Cave in Israel, Neanderthals or early Homo sapiens appear to have stored marrow-rich deer bones for several weeks, relying on the bones and their outer layer of dried skin and flesh to keep the marrow relatively fresh—like storing leftovers in Pleistocene Tupperware.

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Based on the cut marks on the bones, people extracted the marrow after a few weeks, after the bones and their covering of skin and tendons had time to dry out. That suggests the people who lived at Qesem were planning ahead for their future needs—which is one more piece of evidence that Neanderthals and the earliest members of our own species were smarter than we’ve often given them credit for.

Stone Age Tupperware

People of various groups have lived at Qesem Cave off and on for hundreds of thousands of years. Archaeologists haven’t found hominin fossils at the site so far, but in the oldest layers of artifacts, they’ve unearthed oval and pear-shaped hand axes in the Acheulian style—a stone calling card of Homo erectus or their descendants, Homo heidelbergensis. In layers dating from 300,000 to 200,000 years old, the stone blades and scrapers belong to a set of stone tool cultures called the Acheulo-Yabrudian, which has turned up at Neanderthal and early Homo sapiens sites.

Quesem cave a tan dirt filled excavation site
Photograph: JACK GUEZ/Getty Images

Deer bones from those layers—especially the metapodials (the long bones of the feet), which are rich in bone marrow—showed the telltale signs of people cracking them open to get at the marrow inside. Most of the metapodials at Qesem were broken into fragments, and many were pitted and flaked as if they’d been hit with a hammerstone. Many also bore cut marks, probably from when ancient people cut away the skin and tendons to get to the bone underneath.

To better understand exactly what Pleistocene people at Qesem were doing with the deer bones, Tel Aviv University archaeologist Ruth Blasco and her colleagues tried a little Stone Age meat processing of their own. They gathered up a set of fallow deer metapodials and stored them for a few weeks in conditions similar to those at Qesem. Every week, the archaeologists skinned and cracked open a few of the bones.

At first, they only needed to make a couple of quick cuts to sever the tendons from the ends of the bone, and then they could peel away skin and tendon pretty easily. But as the skin and tendons dried, they became much harder to remove. After the second week, cutting away the soft tissue required making several more cuts along the length of the bone—usually while holding the blade almost flat against the bone—and occasionally even sawing at the tendon. The marks left behind on the bone looked looked a lot like the marks on many of the Qesem bones.

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