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August 25, 2014

The Spanish Were Eating Snails 30,000 Years Ago, Long Before The French Ate Escargot

John Hopton for - Your Universe Online

Archaeologists have uncovered evidence that Homo sapiens in Spain ate snails around 30,000 years ago, 10,000 years before the French, whose escargot dish is now celebrated.

Excavation of a site in Benidorm in the southwest of the country revealed that the inhabitants had a varied diet which included cooked snails. It can be difficult for archaeologists to pin down how snails end up at some sites, because many animals eat them and may transport the remains. But those working at the Cova de la Barriada site found a large accumulation of shells which were all of a similar size, suggesting careful selection. The fact that the shells were found near human constructs believed to have been used for cooking is also evidence that snails were a part of human diet during the period.

While other areas in the Mediterranean region have so far only shown evidence that snails were eaten around 20,000 years ago, the team in Spain are confident that Spanish consumption can be shown to have started earlier. Along with the immediately observable evidence at the site - the number, size and location of shells - additional analysis using high-resolution microscopes showed sufficient levels of aragonite (a mineral based on calcium, carbon and oxygen) to suggest that the shells were roasted for a long time. Measurements of shell size also demonstrated the premature death of the snails.

The snails were found in shallow pits alongside stone tools, and remains of other animals such as rabbit, ibex and red deer that were thought to have been roasted in ambers of pine and juniper. It is believed that snails were part of an assorted diet, with the diversity helping to grow the population.

Dr. Javier Fernández-López de Pablo from the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Evolution, the lead author of the study's paper in the journal PLOS ONE, told BBC News reporter Maria Dasi-Espuig that “…these groups had already opted for a strategy of diet diversification that allowed them to increase their population."

The dietary habits of early humans have often been assumed to have been very limited, but Homo sapiens is now thought to have expanded its diet to include plants, freshwater fish, mollusks and land snails.

Dr. Alex Pryor from the University of Southampton, who was not involved in the Spanish study, explained to Dasi-Espuig that humans were experimenting in general during the period concerned, for example with art. Diversification in diet was part of that experimentation. He added that: "You see people beginning to use more of the smaller resources… I see the land snail as another example of catching small animals."

Snails are still a much loved food in Spain and are celebrated in dishes like paella. Now, they can be considered a tradition as well as a delicacy. "Next time you come to Spain and eat snails, you'll have a nice story to tell," said Dr. Fernández-López de Pablo.

Image 2 (below): This image depicts Upper Paleolithic combustion structure containing human collected and cooked land snails and carbonaceous sediments (A) and complete land snails recovered into the combustion structure BM (B). Credit: Fernández-López de Pablo et al.