Which sea turtles were eaten by ancient humans?

Sea turtles

A study by the University of Manchester analysed bone proteins to identify which sea turtles were eaten by humans thousands of years ago.

The inhabitants of modern-day Florida and the Caribbean ate a large amount of sea turtles. These ancient humans left behind a collection of bones which allow scientists to identify the diets of our ancestors, while also indicating the levels of marine biodiversity at the time.

An international team, led by the University of Manchester, used various analytical technologies in order to analyse the ancient proteins from the bones. This analysis allows researchers to identify the types of turtle that were fished from the ocean thousands of years ago.

The research taken on by these scientists can help turtle conservation now. By constructing a historical baseline for turtle populations, this study could help illuminate long term trends of the human impact on marine ecosystems.

Scientists used a technique called collagen fingerprinting in order to visualise the distinct chemical signatures in the main structural protein in the bones. Applying collagen fingerprinting to over 100 turtle samples, from an archaeological site over 2,500, the researchers found that 63% of the collagen containing bones belonged to green turtles, second to the hawksbill turtle, followed by the ridley turtle. Several the specimens analysed weren’t turtles, they were snapping turtles, terrapins and tortoises.

“This is the first time anyone has obtained species-level information using proteins preserved in archaeological sea turtle bone,” said Virginia Harvey, the study’s lead author and a doctoral researcher in marine biology and zooarchaeology at the University of Manchester. “Our method has allowed us to unlock ancient data otherwise lost in time to see which species of turtle humans were targeting thousands of years ago in the Caribbean and Florida regions.”

Sea turtles have been exploited by humans for thousands of years. Over the years, humans have used sea turtles for their meat, eggs, shells and various other products.

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