Your Ancestors Ate Roasted Rodents Like Burgers

Around the world, prehistoric people cooked up voles and other rodents on a spit and left behind the burnt bits.

The remains of roasted rodents dating to about 2800 B.C. were just discovered in northeastern Scotland, where researchers suspect the furry critters were viewed as good eats.

The discovery, reported in the journal Royal Society Open Science, adds to the growing body of evidence that people from nearly all corners of the globe consumed cooked rodents in prehistoric times. The practice continues to this day in certain countries, but has lost favor in others.

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"I have only tried a guinea pig once," lead author Andrzej Romaniuk of National Museums of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh told Seeker. "I would not consider such a meal as top quality - it was rather salty - but it was not a bad one either. Something like a dry chicken, frankly."

Rodents appear to have been one of the first fast foods: Slap one over the fire, allow to roast for a short while and munch by hand.

That appears to be what the residents did at the Neolithic Skara Brae settlement in Orkney, an archipelago off the northeastern coast of Scotland. Romaniuk and his team found the charred remains of voles - small, plant-eating mouse-like rodents - within deposits of household waste. The critters locally are known as Orkney voles.

At first the scientists thought that people might have been burning the voles as pests, but the nature of the burn marks (as for roasting), the skeletal completeness of the animals and the broader context suggests that the little animals were indeed consumed.

Early humans probably ate many rodents back in the day. It's just tricky to find good evidence. Romaniuk explained that the rodents' little bones don't show human teeth marks, since cuts on their bones can be indistinguishable from other factors that might fragment rodent remains. Since rodents are, and were, usually cooked whole, grooves created by cutting tools aren't visible on ancient bones, as they would be for bones from larger animals.

Early Roman texts, however, not only provide evidence that some ancients regularly ate rodents, but that these little animals were also considered to be a delicacy. The edible dormouse, for example, starred as a key ingredient of a gourmet dish.

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Dormice, Romaniuk explained, "were a traditional dish in rather wealthy Roman houses, or those aspiring to become one. Usually each family had big ceramic vessels with interiors adapted for edible dormice to nest in, and such vessels were usually displayed before the official meal with the representatives of other influential Roman families."

Rome is a long way from Orkney, though. The researchers suspect that voles were intentionally transported to the Scottish archipelago as a food resource, since the animals are not native to mainland Britain.

It's known that people at Skara Brae fished and herded, hunted and gathered plants. The rodents could have been brought in when the site was first settled, or perhaps shipped in later to supplement the existing diet of the individuals who were known as the Grooved Ware People because of the grooved pottery that they made.

If the researchers' theories hold true, the discovery could help to explain why vole remains were previously found in a chambered burial mound at the Orkney island called Holm of Papa Westray and at other nearby burial and settlement sites. The ancients were perhaps ritualistically attempting to send off the deceased with a bite to eat.

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