Israeli Archaeologists Discover First-ever Cooked Ostrich Eggs, Maybe

Ostrich eggs have been found in graves and the birds in ancient rock art, but now eggs as much as 7,000 years old were found for the first time in the context of a hearth, in the deep Negev desert

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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One of the ostrich eggs discovered at Nitzana, in the Negev, southern Israel.Credit: Emil Eljam/Israel Antiquities Authority
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Consider the ostrich egg. It can contain over a liter and a half of slimy goodness, compared with a few tablespoons in the case of chicken eggs. People have been hunting the ostrich for their meat and making beads from their shells for tens of thousands of years, and maybe more. But there had been no evidence of prehistoric peoples cooking ostrich eggs – until now. Maybe.

On Thursday the Israel Antiquities Authority announced the first-ever discovery suggestive of the culinary preparation of ostrich eggs in antiquity, at the site of Nitzana in the Negev Desert.

Shattered shells of seven eggs were found by a prehistoric hearth dating to some time between 7,500 to 4,000 years ago, and the remains of an eighth one were found inside.

The eggs were found in a campsite used by nomads since prehistoric times, which was discovered in a salvage excavation of land being prepared for farming by the Be’er Milka moshav, the team says. Elucidation of the eggs’ precise date through radio-carbon dating and other analyses should begin after the excavation is done.

Excavation work at the site in the Negev. Shattered shells of seven eggs were found by a prehistoric hearth dating to some time between 7,500 to 4,000 years ago.Credit: Emil Eljam/IAA

It is routine practice for the Antiquities Authority to survey land earmarked for development of any kind anywhere in Israel. The Negev is full of sites from all periods of human history and prehistory, says Amir Gorzalczany, IAA researcher and expert on the egg of the ostrich in antiquity. Sites in the Negev are particularly valuable to research because the aridity can preserve remains magnificently – witness the perfect 10,000-year-old basket discovered in a cave by the Dead Sea. The eggshells were also in terrific shape given their age.

That may help in their precise dating. Excavation director Lauren Davis explains that carbon-14 analysis indeed works on organic material like eggs, but its accuracy depends on the material’s state of preservation and the ability to prevent contamination from the site, the archaeologists, etc.

The team also unearthed burnt stones, flint and other stone tools, as well as pottery sherds – though Davis says the star of the show was the eggs. “The eggs were crushed but well-preserved, despite the fact that they were uncovered in the surface layer,” she adds.

Excavation director Lauren Davis.Credit: Emil Eljam/IAA

That is another advantage of Negev archaeology, egg expert Gorzalczany says: Finds may be closer to the surface than in lusher areas.

Take one ostrich egg, and a very big bowl

But does finding eight ostrich eggshells in proximity to an ancient hearth prove they were cooked? It does not, but one was found within the hearth and the shell fragments were charred, Davis explains, which seems more than coincidence. The others had not been barbecued yet, it seems, but may have just been waiting their turn.

Or maybe the people were warming themselves by the fire while making eggshell beads, or prepping them to be decorated like eggs found in Africa going back tens of thousands of years. “In ancient graves, ostrich eggs are usually found whole,” Gorzalczany notes – which to his thinking indicates symbolic meaning, perhaps pertaining to the cycle of life, death and rebirth.

In any case, clearly modern humans have had a relationship with the ill-tempered giant bird going back to our earliest history. Its image appears in prehistoric art throughout the Middle East and in the Negev too, Gorzalczany says. “But the interesting thing is that we hardly ever find ostrich bones in excavations – but we do find eggs.”

An ostrichCredit: REUTERS

Which could indicate what? Bird bones can be delicate, but this avian is a monster and bird bones are not absent from the archaeological record. In his opinion, the reason is that not being morons, prehistoric people tended to eschew hunting this dangerous, flightless but fleet giant and settled for stealing its eggs when possible.

“They have communal nests,” he says. “It’s easier and more economical to rob its nests.” (Nest robbing isn’t how they went extinct in Israel – by the late 19th and early 20th century, people had guns and hunted them to extinction, Gorzalczany clarifies.)

In later times, as our weaponry became more sophisticated, the bird itself was clearly targeted – note Roman recipes for the likes of ostrich stew.

As for its eggs, they are common in the prehistoric archaeological record and served many purposes, Gorzalczany says.

The eggshell fragments collected on the left-hand side. One ostrich egg is the equivalent of 25 chicken eggs.Credit: Emil Eljam/IAA

A moment on chicken eggs. When this bird spread out of Asia, it was mainly because people found rooster fights entertaining. The bird as a food and use of its egg came later, during the historic period. But Gorzalczany feels confident people ate ostrich eggs in deep antiquity, likely by boring a hole into the thick shell.

“After eating the nutritious part, which is equivalent to about 25 chicken eggs, they could use the otherwise intact shell as, for instance, a water carrier or break it to make beads,” he says.

Beads presumably for personal adornment purposes go back over 100,000 years; beads specifically made of ostrich shell are also known from at least 50,000 years ago. A recent paper postulated the existence of vast trading networks in South Africa 33,000 years ago based on ostrich beads found far from their point of origin (that is what isotope analysis is for).

An ostrich farm in the Negev. People hunted them to extinction in the region in the 19th and 20th centuries.Credit: Nir Kafri

In Israel, Gorzalczany says he personally found whole, decorated ostrich eggs in graves dating to the Middle Bronze Age in Tel Aviv, in the neighborhood called Bavli. Medical prescriptions found in Egypt and Mesopotamia from that time include ostrich egg as an ingredient (they also used the bird’s unusual plumy feathers).

Davis agrees that whether or not signs of ovivory had been found, nomads in the desert must have been feasting on egg of ostrich – because if you are a nomad wearily trekking the desert wasteland and you happen on a communal nest with giant eggs, you are “the happiest person in the world”, she says: One egg does for the whole family, and in a nest you have meals for weeks.

Irrespective of the nutritional bonanza, clearly ostrich eggs came to have great cultural value and the ones of Nitzana, protected for thousands of years – it remains to be seen how many – by the ever-shifting bone-dry sand dunes, may have delicate engravings or paintings that presently escape the eye, but may be observable in the lab. Even if they were slated for eating at this ancient campsite among the dunes.

The excavation site in the sands of Nitzana.Credit: Emil Eljam/IAA

No, the archaeologists did not find other animal bones at the site, David says; the conditions were not amenable to their preservation, perhaps. But in general, she adds, the site has the feeling of being the day after a party – after everybody has gone home, and left their garbage behind.

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