Recent archaeological discoveries are providing new insights into what early humans ate thousands of years ago. Scientists have found evidence that Middle Paleolithic humans, who lived between 81,000-45,000 years ago, had a more varied diet than previously thought.

Analysis of a site in the Zagros Mountains of Iran reveals they hunted not just large grazing mammals but also smaller prey like tortoises, birds, and carnivores.

An international team of researchers led by Mario Mata-Gonzalez from the University of Tübingen in Germany conducted the first comprehensive dietary study at a Late Pleistocene site in the southern Zagros Mountains.

This mountain range is not only the tallest in Iran but also an important region for understanding human evolution in Southwest Asia during the Middle Paleolithic. The diverse landscape would have supported a variety of plant and animal life.

Until now, archaeological finds in the Zagros Mountains consisted almost entirely of grazing mammal bones. However, remains discovered at the Ghar-e Boof site show humans were eating more than just deer and gazelles.

Over 75% of identified animal fossils belonged to herd species like goats, sheep, and pigs. But the team also found turtle shells and bones from birds, foxes, and large cats like leopards.

Cut marks and processing marks on some fossils indicate the early humans ate these animals. Interestingly, the researchers think tortoises were roasted in their shells before being eaten, based on fire damage seen on exterior shell surfaces. While mammals likely made up the bulk of the diet, tortoises and birds were consumed at least occasionally.

This variety shows Middle Paleolithic humans in the Zagros adapted to different landscape conditions and were able to hunt small and large prey when needed. As lead author Mata-Gonzalez notes, reconstructing early human diets provides insights into how our ancestors interacted with surrounding environments.

The Ghar-e Boof site fossils provide the first clear evidence that humans in this region supplemented their meat intake with smaller game and scavenged carnivores when the opportunity arose.


Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum | Mata-González, M., Starkovich, B.M., Zeidi, M. et al. Evidence of diverse animal exploitation during the Middle Paleolithic at Ghar-e Boof (southern Zagros). Sci Rep 13, 19006 (2023).

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