Dogs, wild cats, foxes and badgers were eaten at El Mirador cave

Dog radius fragment with cut marks. Image: IPHES

Dog radius fragment with cut marks. Image: IPHES

Between 7,200 and 3,100 years ago, humans living at El Mirador cave, Atapuerca (Spain), included a mixture of domestic dog, wild cat, fox and badger in their diet. In continental Europe the consumption of these species was rare in prehistoric times, but 24 fossils at this site show evidence that they were being processed for food.

El Mirador was used as a sheepfold cave to shelter flocks composed mainly of ovicaprines (sheep/goat) and cattle. Not surprisingly, these animals featured predominately in people’s diet, however, other species such as small carnivores appeared to be consumed, evidenced by cut marks, bone breakage, signs of culinary processing and human tooth marks.

In some Mediterranean islands such as Cyprus, the consumption of these species is recorded as early as the Neolithic; however, there is very little evidence to show that it was practised in continental Europe.

Archaeologist Patricia Martin. Image: Cinta S. Bellmunt/IPHES

Archaeologist Patricia Martin. Image: Cinta S. Bellmunt/IPHES

Dog meat

In El Mirador Cave, the dogs were disarticulated, defleshed and boiled”, says researcher Patricia Martin. At this site it has been observed both in the Neolithic and in the Bronze Age layers. It occurs occasionally in various episodes, but has temporal continuity“.

It is possible that this practice was associated with sporadic moments of famine and shortage says Ms Martin, or that dog meat was special. For instance, in some Asian cultures and among Berbers, dog meat is considered to be a rich source of protein and a luxury.

Mainly in Neolithic levels

It also cannot be excluded that in some cases the objective was to obtain the skin of these animals. The consumption of the other species found at El Mirador is more limited than that of dogs, and mainly recorded in the Neolithic levels. Wild cats and badgers were boiled and consumed. Given the difficulty of hunting wild carnivores and the exceptional nature of their use in this site, the probability that these animals had been accidentally captured and subsequently consumed arises. “However, neither is it possible to reject the option of being used as an extra source of food in times of shortage“, says Ms Martin.

The findings are published in the Quaternary International journal.