170,000 Years Ago, Early Humans Were Eating Giant Snails

The “slow food” movement has been happening for much longer than previously suspected. And no, I’m not talking about the trendy focus on traditional meals.

I’m talking about eating food that moves slowly. In this case, that’s giant land snails. The fist-sized animals are still a staple in many West African countries, and recent research indicates that we may have started chowing down on them far earlier than originally thought.

Scientists have found evidence of snail consumption at early human sites dating back to the late Ice Age (about 11,500 years ago). Nutritious, easy to catch, and tasty (just ask the French), snails would have been an important food source for our ancestors.

But precisely when we started eating snails can be hard to study. The animals would have been attracted to the “substance resources” early humans collected (grass sleeping mats, stored food, etc). And when they die, their shells break down in ways similar to if they’d been cracked open by rocks.

a land snail in a human hand

Nutritious, easy to catch, and big. New research indicates that Ice Age relatives of modern giant land snails were a food staple far earlier than previously thought. Photo: Shutterstock


This has led many archaeologists to conclude that snails were more of a pest and occasional snack than a primary resource to ancient humans. As a result, scientists believed that shells found at sites older than 11,500 years were coincidental.

But it is possible that our assumption that early humans weren’t regularly feasting on giant land snails is simply because of incomplete archaeological records. This, according to a recent paper by Marine Wojcieszack, an archaeologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, and her colleagues.

Catch ’em, crack ’em, stick ’em in the coals

The team began by studying a trove of land snail shells excavated between 2015 and 2019 from a South African site known as the Border Cave. Wojcieszack and her team noticed the shells varied wildly in color, often appearing burnished. Direct heat — like that you might get by roasting the shells on the embers of a fire — would cause such an effect.

Luckily, giant land snails haven’t changed all that much since the Pleistocene and close relatives of the species found in the Border Cave still exist in West Africa. Wojcieszack tested her theory by roasting shells of these modern land snails. And wouldn’t you know it? The end result looked similar to the shells found in the Border Cave.

The team had proved that the snails, at least in the Border Cave, were being used as a major food source — and way earlier than previously suspected. The Border Cave trove dates back 170,000 years.

“Border Cave is at present the earliest known site at which this subsistence strategy is recorded,” the team wrote in their paper.

And the amount of shells found at the site far outstrips the number that might be naturally attracted to the grass mats and other early human resources.

“Thus, evidence…supports an interpretation of members of the group provisioning others at a home base, which gives us a glimpse into the complex social life of early Homo sapiens.”

Too bad those ancient snail eaters had no garlic or butter to go with their meal. Scientists believe garlic originated in Middle Asia or China as a medicinal plant around 2600 BC, while butter has only been around for 9,000 years or so.

Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall is an award-winning painter, photographer, and freelance writer. Andrew’s essays, illustrations, photographs, and poems can be found scattered across the web and in a variety of extremely low-paying literary journals.
You can find more of his work at www.andrewmarshallimages.com, @andrewmarshallimages on Instagram and Facebook, and @pawn_andrew on Twitter (for as long as that lasts).