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The ends of deer leg bones, stored in conditions that simulated how they were kept in a cave in Israel during the Stone Age by ancient humans. Scientists believe the legs were kept for delayed consumption of their marrow.Credit…Ruth Blasco

Sealed for millenniums, Qesem Cave in central Israel is a limestone time capsule of the lives and diets of Paleolithic people from 420,000 to 200,000 years ago. Inside, ancient humans once butchered fresh kills with stone blades and barbecued meat on campfires.

“It was believed that early hominins were consuming everything they could put their hands on immediately, without storing or preserving or keeping things for later,” said Ran Barkai, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

But not every meal was scarfed down right after a hunt. Dr. Barkai and his colleagues have found that the cave’s earliest inhabitants may have also stored animal bones filled with tasty marrow that they feasted on for up to nine weeks after the kill, sort of like a Stone Age canned soup.

The finding may be the earliest example of prehistoric humans saving food for later consumption, and may also offer insight into the abilities of ancient humans to plan for their future needs. The study was published Wednesday in Science Advances.

Dr. Barkai’s team examined cut marks on nearly 82,000 animal fragments from Qesem Cave, most belonging to fallow deer. The researchers noticed unusual, heavy chop marks on the ends of some leg bones known as the metapodials.

The chop marks “make no sense in terms of stripping off the bone, because at this part of the bone there is no meat and very little fat,” Dr. Barkai said.

Usually, stripping the hide from a fresh bone requires minimal force, he said. But the heavy chops indicated that the processing used more force than should have been necessary.

“We had a hypothesis that these unusual chop marks at the end of the meatless bones had to do with the removal of dry skin,” he said. But why were they doing that?

The team concluded that the ancient hominins, who shared features with Homo sapiens and Neanderthals but were probably neither, were removing dry skin on the bones to get to the marrow.

That presented another question: If they were after marrow, why not just remove it from the bone when it was fresh? The researchers hypothesized that the chop marks were an indication that the early humans stored the bones so they could eat the marrow later.

To test their idea, the team collected freshly killed deer leg bones and then stored them for several weeks in conditions similar to those inside the cave. After every week, they would break open a bone and analyze the marrow to see how nutritious it still was.

Every time, a researcher would remove the dried skin using a flint flake and then hammer open the bone with a quartzite tool, similar to what the ancient people would have had used. The researcher wasn’t given instructions on how to open the bone.

The team found that the researcher’s chop marks on the older leg bones with dried skin were similar to what they saw in Qesem Cave.

“It was a surprise when we realized that the same marks were generated experimentally,” said Ruth Blasco, a zooarchaeologist at the National Research Centre on Human Evolution in Spain and lead author on the study. “The Qesem hominids have demonstrated very modern behavior in their livelihood strategies.”

Their chemical test showed that after nine weeks, the fat in the bone marrow degraded only a little and was still nutritious.

Jessica Thompson, an archaeologist at Yale University, said the paper was a creative approach to reconstructing a past behavior that is notoriously difficult to identify in the archaeological record.

“Their experimental work does a lot to convince me that some of the bones were not very fresh when they were processed, although it is still not clear how common this behavior was,” Dr. Thompson said.

Briana Pobiner, a paleoanthropologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, praised the study and said that if this removal of dry skin did leave a unique butchery mark, “it’s now up to us zooarchaeologists to look for these traces in older fossil assemblages to see if we can document a greater antiquity of this food storage behavior.”

As for the marrow, how did it taste? One of the researchers couldn’t resist trying it.

“It is like a bland sausage, without salt, and a little stale,” said Jordi Rosell, an archaeologist at Rovira i Virgili University in Spain. “I can say that its taste was not bad, perhaps a little more rancid in the last weeks, but not bad.”

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Consuming the meat of large animals is generally thought to have been instrumental in human evolution. It allowed early hominins, such as australopithecines, to begin developing larger brains some 3.4 million years ago. At a time when early hominins were not yet able to manufacture and hunt with sophisticated tools, however, obtaining meat from animals that significantly outweighed them was a dangerous undertaking. Researchers now believe that our human ancestors may have first acquired the taste for meat by scavenging carcasses left behind by other predators. Even if most of the meat was rotten or had already been consumed, early hominins may have used stones and other tools to smash open bones and access fatty marrow deposits, an invaluable source of the nutrients required by their very large brains. “Targeting marrow not only enables a stone-wielding hominin to access a novel resource that can’t be accessed by most other carnivores, but it was a relatively low-risk food,” says Yale University paleoanthropologist Jessica Thompson. This combination of high caloric returns at a low cost may have served as the ideal gateway to a long-standing carnivorous habit.

 

Source: Marrow of Humanity

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I ate the best meat I’ve ever eaten through a straw.

When the Singaporean food stall proprietor who’d just served me a plate of bones first offered the straw, I refused. I didn’t want to take any shortcuts as I worked the tastiest bits of marrow out from the skeletal hollows.

But a couple of minutes into my repast, my face smeared with the viscous broth the bones had come in, I couldn’t face the thought of leaving some of this food unexploited. So I took the proffered straw, inserted it down into a bone cavity and inhaled.

It tasted like the first bite of an excellent steak, only more so. Unlike biting into a rib-eye, when that initial sensation gives way to something less exultant and chewier, the marrow lingered on the tongue. I felt as if I was mainlining glutamate, the substance responsible for umami.

These bones had been cooked for hours in a fluorescent red amalgam of tomato and chili. Sup tulang, as this dish is called in Singapore, is Malay for “bone soup.” I ate it at Deen Tulang Specialist, one of a handful of stalls specializing in the dish in the Golden Mile Food Centre, one of many food courts, known as hawker centers, in Singapore.

Even as I eagerly gobbled at the bones in front of me, I turned a question over in my head: Just what was it that made the bones so good?

Not So Offal: Why Bone Soup, A ‘Perfect Food,’ Tastes So Meaty

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Sup tulang, as this dish is called in Singapore, is Malay for “bone soup.” The fattiness of the marrow rounds out the chili, tomato, fennel, cumin and ginger.

Konstantin Kakaes for NPR
I ate the best meat I’ve ever eaten through a straw.

When the Singaporean food stall proprietor who’d just served me a plate of bones first offered the straw, I refused. I didn’t want to take any shortcuts as I worked the tastiest bits of marrow out from the skeletal hollows.

But a couple of minutes into my repast, my face smeared with the viscous broth the bones had come in, I couldn’t face the thought of leaving some of this food unexploited. So I took the proffered straw, inserted it down into a bone cavity and inhaled.

It tasted like the first bite of an excellent steak, only more so. Unlike biting into a rib-eye, when that initial sensation gives way to something less exultant and chewier, the marrow lingered on the tongue. I felt as if I was mainlining glutamate, the substance responsible for umami.

These bones had been cooked for hours in a fluorescent red amalgam of tomato and chili. Sup tulang, as this dish is called in Singapore, is Malay for “bone soup.” I ate it at Deen Tulang Specialist, one of a handful of stalls specializing in the dish in the Golden Mile Food Centre, one of many food courts, known as hawker centers, in Singapore.

Even as I eagerly gobbled at the bones in front of me, I turned a question over in my head: Just what was it that made the bones so good?

i
Sup tulang on the menu at the Deen Tulang Specialist stall in the Golden Mile Food Centre in Singapore.
Konstantin Kakaes for NPR
Humans have been eating marrow for as long as we’ve been around. Indeed, some paleoanthropologists argue that eating marrow is part of what made us become human.

This school of thought is based largely on bones and stone tools from about 2 million years ago found in the Olduvai gorge, in present-day Tanzania. Fossils found there suggest that early humans scavenged carcasses already picked apart by other carnivores, and, using tools, broke open the bones and sucked out the marrow. Because marrow is very fatty, it is calorically dense, so the effort required to break open the bones was worth it.

In the West, marrow somehow evolved into an aristocratic food. In Offal: A Global History, Nina Edwards mentions a recipe used at Henry V’s court “involving a beef marrow-stuffed steak rolled up like a pancake and sweetened with honey.” Queen Victoria, she says, ate roasted bone marrow on a daily basis. In more recent times, Fergus Henderson, a chef in London who was in the forefront of “nose-to-tail” eating, popularized a recipe of roast beef bone marrow with parsley, served with toast.

These sorts of preparations are delicious, but they treat marrow as a delicate, rare thing, like caviar or foie gras. Yet marrow, today as it was in prehistoric times, is plentiful.

The sup tulang vendors in Singapore sell it by the bone — it works out to just over a U.S. dollar for each one. It’s not a pricey food by Singaporean standards, though it is a delicacy.

A similar soup by the same name can be found in Malaysia, but the preparation I had at Deen’s is uniquely Singaporean. It is a specialty of the mamak, or Indian Muslim, community in Singapore, who make up a small percentage of the population. Aside from the hawker center where I had it, there are a handful of other food stalls and restaurants in the city-state that serve it.

Compared with the marrow I’d eaten before, which was lightly spiced, the marrow in the tulang soup tasted more intense — the fattiness of the marrow rounded out the chili, tomato, fennel, cumin and ginger.

Marrow, because it is less widely consumed than flesh these days, hasn’t been thoroughly studied by flavor scientists. There is one guy, however, who has his Ph.D. in bone marrow: Belayet Choudhury. His 2008 dissertation, “Volatile and non-volatile components of beef marrow bone stocks,” is great reading.

Part of marrow’s flavor, Choudhury explains, comes from the Maillard reaction in which sugars react with amino acids (this is the same thing that causes a nice crust to develop on steaks cooked over high heat).

Bone marrow, he writes, is almost 80 percent fat and only about 2.6 percent protein, with the rest being moisture. There are at least 12 different fatty acids present and about 20 amino acids.

When bone marrow is cooked, the large number of acids create even larger numbers of volatile compounds through a series of chemical reactions (the Maillard reaction and oxidation being the most important ones). The newly created volatile compounds interact with the nonvolatiles to bring about the marrow’s rich taste.

Choudhury set out to find what compounds endow marrow not just with its pronounced umami but also with its “mouthfulness and taste continuity.” He performed a series of experiments to single out exactly what was in the stock, finding a number of volatile compounds that hadn’t previously been identified that, he wrote, provide “characteristic aroma and overall flavor.”

Guy Crosby, an adjunct professor of nutrition at Harvard and the science editor of America’s Test Kitchen, says that the many nucleotides present in bone marrow amplify the umami taste of glutamate by as much as 20 to 30 times.

Crosby reminded me that the function of bone marrow is to produce red blood cells. Because it is, in effect, a factory for the creation of cells, Crosby says, bone marrow is like an egg: “a perfect food. It’s got everything in it needed to create and sustain life.”

And it’s true: Marrow tastes wholesome, in a way that other similarly rich foods, like butter, don’t. It has some of everything you need. Just as cold, pure water from a mountain spring quenches thirst, this soup, the marrow tempered with spice and made resilient by tomato, seems to me as close as any substance can be to the tangible opposite of hunger.

I liked grappling with the bones, not immune to imagined kinship with cavemen who hunted beasts and gnawed on their prey. But my variety of carnivorous experience is distant from theirs. The fact is, once I gave in and sucked at the marrow through a straw, the implement children use to drink, I got at more of it. It was a reminder that I’m not that much less powerless than a toddler.

Konstantin Kakaes is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., and the author of the e-book The Pioneer Detectives.

Original article:
NPR.org

20140806-140234-50554370.jpg
Sup tulang, as this dish is called in Singapore, is Malay for “bone soup.” The fattiness of the marrow rounds out the chili, tomato, fennel, cumin and ginger.

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