A few weeks ago I began writing about horse burgers with the intention of discussing prehistoric eating habits in Britain. I, however, got sidetracked and ended up with a rather philosophical piece on how equid meat appears to represent British national identity and, in turn, a rejection of all things French. I promised to produce and deliver a short post on equid consumption in the Palaeolithic and here it is. Bon app!
Equid Consumption in the Palaeolithic
Although Brits are now disgusted by the idea of eating horse this was not always the case. At Boxgrove, on the outskirts of Chichester, for example, our Homo heidelbergensis ancestors were processing and eating horses at GTP17 (also known as the Horse Butchery Site) around half a million years ago.
Additionally, they were also consuming, believe it or not, lion (Panthera sp.), cave bear (Ursus deningeri) and giant deer (Megaloceros dawkinsi). These animals no longer roam the landscapes of Britain, but would have been regular occurrences during the period in which Boxgrove was occupied between 524,000 and 478,000 years ago, a time when the British climate and environment were very different to what they are today (e.g. Holmes et al. 2010). Oh, how things change!
Brits were not the only ones eating horse in the Palaeolithic. As a matter of fact, this was quite a common occurrence in many parts of Europe (and the globe).
The French were, like they are today, also savouring equid meat for much if not all of the Palaeolithic. For example, at the site of Solutré in Burgundy during the Magdalenian period approximately 15,000 years ago humans were targeting horse family groups (i.e. females and their young) on a seasonal basis -between February and September- and processing the carcasses in situ (Turner 2006). For these Palaeolithic hunters Solutré must have been a particularly favourite spot of theirs because it was estimated that a minimum of 45 horses were processed at the site during this period alone! I wonder how many Tesco Value Burgers could be produced with that much horse meat…
At the site of Vela Spila on the Croatian island of Korčula, Epigravettian (20,000–10,000 years ago) hunter-gatherers were also hunting equids* on a seasonal basis, mostly during the summer. During this season the water springs closest to the cave would have been most active and so the herds would have concentrated close to them. The predictable, seasonal behaviour of the equids -a certain kind of equids like to gather around water sources during the summer- would have made it easier for the hunter-gatherers at Vela Spila to track and ambush the equids, providing them with a reliable, seasonally available food source (Spry-Marqués 2012).
*In this particular case, the equids being hunted were Equus hydruntinus, a now-extinct form of wild ass whose remains are regularly recovered from prehistoric archaeological deposits in Europe and parts of Asia (Burke 2006).
As these three examples show ‘horse as food’ is nothing new in the human story. On the contrary, eating horse was pretty much the norm until recently if we take into consideration that the Palaeolithic represents 99% of our human existence. What is new, however, is that we are no longer in control of what and how we eat. And this is what we should really be worrying about.
Burke, A. 2006. Palaeoethology as an archaeological tool: A model for the social and spatial behaviour of E. hydruntinus. In Mashkour, M. (ed.), Equids in Time and Space: Papers in Honour of Véra Eisenmann. Proceedings of the 9th ICAZ Conference, Durham 2002. Oxford: Oxbow, 62–69.
Holmes, J., Atkinson, T., Fiona Darbyshire, D., Horne, D., Joordens, J., Roberts, M., Sinka, K., & Whittaker, J. (2010). Middle Pleistocene climate and hydrological environment at the Boxgrove hominin site (West Sussex, UK) from ostracod records Quaternary Science Reviews, 29 (13-14), 1515-1527 DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2009.02.024
Spry-Marqués, V. P. 2012. The Adriatic Plain: A Last Glacial Maximum Human Refugium? Epigravettian Subsistence Strategies at the Site of Vela Spila (Korčula, Croatia). Unpublished doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom).
Turner, E. 2006. Results of a recent analysis of horse remains dating to the Magdalenian period at Solutré, France. In Mashkour, M. (ed.), Equids in Time and Space: Papers in Honour of Véra Eisenmann. Proceedings of the 9th ICAZ Conference, Durham 2002. Oxford: Oxbow, 70–89.