As soon as the man could, he began to hunt. And with success: animals from small to large he speared on his spear. Even that slow and slippery giant snail turned out to be a tasty snack. Besides, the snail was, of course, easy prey.

Modern humans arose in Africa around 300,000 years ago, but it wasn’t until around 12,000 years ago that they traded in from their nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle for a life as settled farmers. Until then, everything edible had to be hunted, from rabbits, deer and fish to mammoths, bison and monkeys. Even poisonous animal species end up in the pan, because fire has existed for a long time. Over the years we have caught almost every animal species, no matter how big and dangerous they are.

It all goes in the pan
But it wasn’t just big, fat animals that were on primitive man’s menu. He, too, turned out to be a fan of a small, slow and slimy creature: for more than a hundred thousand years, people have been eating the giant African snail (Achatinidae). A tasty snack that does not bite or escape when you want to grab it. Man brought this slippery delicacy back to his lair in South Africa some 170,000 years ago to roast and eat around the campfire. This pleased our ancestors so much that they continued to do it for 100,000 years in the same spot, according to excavations at Border Cave in eastern South Africa.

border cave
The Cueva de la Frontera is located on a cliff, from which the view of the surroundings is stupendous. The famous cave is a great gift for archaeologists: there they found some of the oldest fossils of modern man. Research has shown that people already lived here 227,000 years ago and the place remained popular as a place of refuge at intervals, until the last inhabitants left 600 years ago. Very old evidence of symbolism has been found in and around the cave, as well as all kinds of tools, trinkets, burial sites and bed constructions in which early man could rest comfortably on a layer of grass.

227,000 years of pleasure to live
It has now also been discovered that humans cooked and ate the giant African snail in Frontier Cave, between 170,000 and 70,000 years ago. Consumption of this elusive animal also had consequences for the evolution of human diet and social behavior, the researchers say. They found fragments of ancient land snail shells in the soil layers and were able to trace all sorts of details about our ancestors’ diet over the years.

Metachatina kraussi, Achatinidae. Photo: Naturalis Biodiversity Center/Wikimedia Common

Snails are an excellent source of nutrients. They move slowly, they are easy to catch and it was even possible to keep them alive in the cave until it was time to eat them. To reduce the risk of food poisoning, it is advisable to cook them well before eating them, and that is what the African prehistoric man did.

Grab a snail, fry that sandwich
Previous archaeological work in the cave showed that the inhabitants used wood fires for cooking, heating the room and providing protection from predators. Analysis of the coal seams also shows that the plant species in their repertoire not only had high nutritional and medicinal value, but also served an insect repellent and cosmetic function.

The remains of the snail shells found by the team come in a variety of colors, from beige to brown to dull gray. The researchers assumed this was due to heating and tested pieces of the shell of modern giant snails by heating them to different temperatures and for different times. Color change, weight loss, and the degree to which shell fragments were broken were meticulously recorded.

colored shell fragments
Cochleae consist of layers of the mineral aragonite, which turns into calsite under the influence of high temperatures. The team used, among other things, infrared spectroscopy and the electron microscope to see what exactly happens when it is heated. Ultimately, archaeologists conclude with great certainty that humans brought the giant African snails to the cave site to roast them over a wood fire and then eat them.

To this day, land snails are on the menu in much of the world. People like to eat them in Spain, France, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Nepal and parts of Asia. The researchers explain that it is not a continuous line of snail consumption, but that this eating habit disappeared and reappeared several times in human history.