An Ancient Cookout

September, 2010 by Ray Bendici
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As you're getting the burgers and dogs ready for your Labor Day barbecue, consider this story from the other day about UConn zooarchaeologist Natalie Munro being part of a team that discovered a prehistoric feasting hall in Israel. The site is 12,000 years old and the recent excavations uncovered pieces of meat and tortoise shells, both of which were apparently on the menu.

From the article --

When the archaeologists excavated two hollows that were carved out in the cave, they counted up the remains of at least 71 tortoises and three wild cattle, also known as aurochs. They said the bones and shells showed signs of being carved up and cooked for human consumption. The tortoise shells were found surrounding the shaman's skeleton, in such a way as to suggest that they were thrown in during the burial ceremony.

The tortoises alone would provide enough meat to feed 35 people, although many more than that may have been in attendance. "We don't know exactly how many people attended this particular feast, or what the average attendance was at similar events, since we don't know how much meat was actually available in the cave," Munro said in the news release. "The best we can do is give a minimum estimate based on the bones that are present."

Munro and Grosman consider their find to be the first clear evidence of communal feasting, but there's ample evidence that humans had meals together thousands of years earlier. Last year, archaeologists reported finding a barbecue pit in the Czech Republic that was used about 30,000 years ago for roasting mammoth meat and other morsels, luau-style. In 2007, scientists turned up evidence that humans cooked up mussels, clams and snails on South Africa's seashore 164,000 years ago — and perhaps even gussied themselves up for the clambake.

Mmm ... prehistoric barbecued mammoth ribs. Uhhhhh .....

[*wipes away drool*]

Apparently, this "cooking" thing goes back even further -- from this article about cooking mammoths --

Svoboda, a professor at the University of Brno and director of its Institute of Archaeology, and colleagues recently excavated Pavlov VI, where they found the remains of a female mammoth and one mammoth calf near a 4-foot-wide roasting pit. Arctic fox, wolverine, bear and hare remains were also found, along with a few horse and reindeer bones.

The meats were cooked luau-style underground. Svoboda said, "We found the heating stones still within the pit and around."

Boiling pits existed near the middle roaster. He thinks "the whole situation — central roasting pit and the circle of boiling pits — was sheltered by a teepee or yurt-like structure."

Sounds like the tradition of the big family barbecue goes a ways back. I wonder if any of the events ever ended prematurely when someone drank a little too much fermented berry juice, became belligerent, insulted Aunt May's dress and then started scuffling with Uncle Joe before knocking Gramma Jean into the pool and ...

Sorry, sorta drifted there.

Anyway, I've often wondered who was the first person to eat certain animals. I mean, mammoths, horses, reindeer -- I can see that people probably just copied what they saw other predators eating. But what about a creature like a lobster? Who was the first person that said, "Yeah, look at the giant green underwater grasshopper -- I bet that'd cook up, real nice."

Then again, we've proven as a species that we'll eat just about anything -- monkey brains, maggot cheese, roasted silk worm pupae for starters (or are they main courses?) How about tarantulas, tuna eyeballs, rotten soybeans or codfish sperm (Gah!) Perhaps a little puffin heart, live octopus or duck fetus eggs with a shot of snake wine to chase it down? Oh, and in case your lunch has come up and you want to replace it: fried calves' brains, stuffed camel, fermented basking shark and of course, haggis.

Yeah, that's all just nasty. I don't doubt that Steve has eaten many of these, or worse. (You all don't want to know.)

Of course, some might argue the weirdest thing to eat here in Connecticut is a steamed cheeseburger from Ted's in Meriden. That's more my speed, you know, until someone figures out how to properly clone mammoths.

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