A collection of eight ostrich eggs dated to between 4,000 and 7,500 years old have been discovered near an ancient fire pit in southern Israel. It was a campsite used by prehistoric nomads, which also revealed burnt stones, flint, stone tools, and pottery sherds, apart from the “truly special” collection of ostrich eggs. Although they are crushed, they are simultaneously exceptionally well-preserved.
Fireside Scrambling In Ancient Times
The eight fragmented ostrich eggs were discovered beside a fire pit at an ancient nomadic campsite in the Negev desert ‘s Nitzana sand dunes, in the agricultural fields of Be’er Milka, a Moshav agricultural community in Israel’s southern Ramat HaNegev region. According to a report in Haaretz, Lauren Davis, the Israel Antiquities Authority excavation director, said the finds were spread over a 2,150 square foot (200 square meter) section of land that was worked by desert nomads beginning around 7,000 years ago.
The Nitzana Hillocks or sand dunes used to be home to wild ostriches, among other creatures. (Mboesch / CC BY SA 4.0 )
Davis said that because the eggs were discovered next to a fire with stones, flint blades , cutting tools and pottery sherds, it is most likely that they were going to be cooked. The researcher explained that campsites like these were quickly covered over by the dunes and then re-exposed with moving sands over thousands of years. This explanation goes some way to accounting for the “exceptional preservation” of the eggs, which Davis said offers new insights into the lives of desert nomads .
The eight crushed ostrich eggs were found near an ancient campfire, leading to the belief that they were collected as food ( Israel Antiquities Authority )
Nature Has Had Its Fill of Ostriches
The Israel Antiquities Authority reported that the eight ostrich eggs were crushed “but well-preserved.” Because they were found beside a fire pit, with one egg placed directly inside the fire, the archaeologists believe they were “deliberately collected” for use as food.
The IAA informed that wild ostriches used to roam in Israel until the 19th century. In fact, seeing ostriches roam freely in the Negev desert was the primary mission of the Israel Nature & National Parks Protection Authority’s ( INNPPA) in the early 2000s. However, a few weeks after releasing two groups of wild birds into the environment, the bones of four ostriches, and remnants of the second group were found in the Eilat Mountains . Haaretz reported that the INNPPA’s attempt to return wild ostriches to nature only served to feed “stray dogs or wolves” that live in the Southern Arava .
Climate change and hunting contributed to the extinction of the Arabian ostrich, but they used to roam widely across the Arabian and Sinai Peninsulas. Image from The Book of Animals of al-Jahiz, Syria, 14th century ( Public Domain )
Ostriches Eggs Were Food, But Also Prehistoric Luxury Items
Times of Israel quoted Dr. Amir Gorzalczany, who said “one ostrich egg has the nutritional value of about 25 normal chicken eggs .” However, because these eight eggs were found at archaeological sites dating between 4,000 to 7,000 years ago, Davis concluded that “they held value” in other ways. Some of the suspected uses, besides being a nutritious food, include “ funerary rites , luxury items, and water-canteens.”
Throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages (third-first millennia BC) in ancient Mesopotamia, the Levant and the wider Mediterranean, ostrich eggs were painted, engraved, embellished with ivory, precious metals, and faience fittings, then traded as luxury items . However, archaeologists have noted that a distinct lack of ancient ostrich bones exists alongside ostrich eggs.
Ostrich eggs were a luxury in the ancient world. These painted ostrich eggs were discovered in Ibiza, Spain from the 6th to 5th centuries BC. (Jamie Heath / CC BY SA 2.0 )
While Davis suspects in the ancient world “people avoided tackling the ostrich and were content with collecting their eggs,” there are other possibilities that might account for the lack of bones. It might be the case that people had spiritualized the enormous bird and deemed it as sacred, and therefore only used its nutritious egg as alimentation. Or perhaps people realized that you can only eat a dead bird once, but by returning to nests season after season to harvest the eggs, a flow of eggs could be maintained.
Top Image: Prehistoric man holding an ostrich egg. Public domain.
By Ashley Cowie