Year-round shellfish exploitation in the Levant and implications for Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer subsistence

23 Jan 2018

Recent studies have shown that the use of aquatic resources has greater antiquity in hominin diets than pre- viously thought. At present, it is unclear when hominins started to habitually consume marine resources. This study examines shellfish exploitation from a behavioural ecology perspective, addressing how and when past hunter-gatherers from the Levant used coastal resources for subsistence purposes. We investigate the seasonality of shellfish exploitation in the Levantine Upper Palaeolithic through oxygen isotope analysis on shells of the intertidal rocky shore mollusc Phorcus (Osilinus) turbinatus from the key site Ksâr ‘Akil (Lebanon). At this rockshelter, multi-layered archaeological deposits contained remains of both marine and terrestrial molluscs in relatively large quantities, which were consumed and used as tools and ornaments by the occupants of the site. Our results indicate that at the start of the Initial Upper Palaeolithic (IUP), there is no evidence for shellfish consumption. Humans started to take fresh shellfish to the rockshelter from the second half of the IUP onward, albeit in low quantities. During the Early Upper Palaeolithic (EUP) shellfish exploitation became increasingly frequent. Oxygen isotope data show that shellfish exploitation was practised in every season throughout most of the Upper Palaeolithic (UP), with an emphasis on the colder months. This suggests that coastal resources had a central role in early UP foraging strategies, rather than a seasonally restricted supplementary one. Year-round shellfish gathering, in turn, suggests that humans occupied the rockshelter at different times of the year, al- though not necessarily continuously. Our oxygen isotope data is complemented with broader-scale exploitation patterns of faunal resources, both vertebrate and invertebrate, at the site. The inclusion of coastal marine re- sources signifies a diversification of the human diet from the EUP onward, which is also observed in foraging practices linked to the exploitation of terrestrial fauna.