Recently, on the way to my grandchildren’s home, we drove past Qesem Cave. My son asked me innocently, “What’s new in Qesem Cave?” They know I’m crazy about this place, discovered by chance when widening the highway. And, actually, in this place that is over 200,000 years old, there continue to be new discoveries. Recently, the forerunner to the freezer was discovered in Qesem.

Today, when you have food stuffs to store for a long time, you put them in the freezer. I fondly remember my childhood summer vacations in Northern Minnesota, which centered around fishing. We caught many more fish than we could eat during our one-week vacation, so we cleaned the excess and froze it, to be lovingly cooked and served (hopefully with beer batter) through the Fall and into January.

In prehistoric times there were also seasons of plenty and seasons of lack. How did they store food to be eaten at a later time? In Qesem Cave researchers have found evidence of storing the food in ash. So far, the evidence is indirect and has been postulated through studying flint tools. According to a new study, 300,000 years ago the hominids occupying Qesem Cave actively treated perishable goods and food with ash from their bonfire. Through carefully examining the flint found around the fire pits, Christina Lemorini, archaeology professor at Rome’s La Sapienza University, conjectured that the tools worn by ash.

According to residue analysis, checking for any remnants found on tools, the flint contained traces of animal hides and vegetables, especially roots and tubers. Only one of the 26 flints showed residue from meat.

Then they checked the wear on the flint stones. They did this through “Use-Wear analysis” – using replicas to test different conditions. The researchers checked working various organic materials including meat, hide and vegetables, both those that were covered with ash and those without ash-covering.

Based on these two studies – residue analysis and “Use-Wear analysis” – the researchers determined that the flint tools were used on vegetables and hides which had been covered with ash. (Meat was dried or smoked or stored as marrow. Why? It turns out that ash is a very good food preservation technique. Ash staves off decomposition, repels insects and prevents odor – similar properties of a modern freezer. Even today, the World Health Organization recommends cleaning hands with ash if soap is not readily available. Food can be stored coated in ash for weeks or months – not as long as freezing – but available 300,000 years ago. This is the first place that this preservation method has been seen in prehistoric societies. Techniques learned at Qesem Cave will now be applied to other similar sites around the world.

All this points to a society which engaged in planning. Excess food could be put away for a time of lack. Taken together with other innovations found at Qesem Cave (described here and here in this blog), Lemorini sees the discovery of ash food preservation as a reflection of the hominids who occupied the cave. “This is a sign of a very advanced level of organization, of a complex understanding of the concepts time and seasonality and the ability to take a series of actions to maximize the exploitation of the surrounding area. This suggests a cognitive level that until recently we thought belonged only to modern humans.”

Today, no Israeli bonfire is complete without throwing potatoes into the fire to be cooked. Turns out this practice has been occurring for a long, long time here. This ancient cave continues to give up its secrets and cements Israel as an important crossroad and backdrop for innovation even in prehistoric times. Wonder what’s next?

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