The Paleoindians Probably ate more Turtle than Megafauna

A ~15 pound snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) crossed Hephzibah-Mcbean Road a few weeks ago. I decelerated my Toyota Corolla and took a closer look, but unfortunately I didn’t have my camera and couldn’t take an original photo.  This part of the road is at least a mile from any body of water, so it was surprising to see an aquatic animal that far from any creek or pond.  The encounter inspired a little research of chelonian literature.  I now know the turtle was a female. Male snapping turtles never leave water unless their pond dries up.  But females travel as much as a mile from water to dig a nest where they deposit their eggs.  This habit seems like an evolutionary disadvantage because the long slow trek to water for hatchlings and mother increases the risk of predation.  Birds and small mammals take a heavy toll on hatchlings.  One report in the Journal of Mammalogy notes a case of a black bear tearing the shell off an adult snapping turtle, a potential problem in wilderness areas, though in today’s developed world, automobiles pose the greatest risk to adults.  Yet, the risk is worth it to avoid inbreeding and to facilitate the spread of the species over a wide geographic area, ensuring there will be turtles in place to inhabit newly created ponds.  Apparently, the decrease in fertility from inbreeding combined with the chance of becoming isolated in ponds that eventually dry out eliminated more turtles from the gene pool than predation of turtles on their long overland colonizations.

This snapping turtle must be a female looking for a place to lay eggs.

Snapping turtles are omnivores, eating aquatic plants, small invertebrates, fish, frogs, small mammals, and ducks.  Their horny beaks are dangerous weapons capable of destroying a duck or removing a finger from a careless human.  They can grow up to 45 lbs. and live to be 50 years old.  After they reach 5 lbs. or more they become a top predator in their environment.  They are still common everywhere, even in city and suburban ponds, and they were even more plentiful in pristine Pleistocene times.  So plentiful in fact that along with other turtle species, they were probably a more common item in the diet of the paleoindian than the extinct megafauna were.  Turtle shells have been found associated with Clovis tools at many archaeological sites including Aubrey, Texas; Blackwater, New Mexico; Kincaid Shelter, Texas; Levanille, Texas; Shawnee Minisink, Pennsylvania; and Sheridan Pit, Ohio.  Turtle remains from the latter site were specifically identified as snapping turtle.  Turtle was an abundant and easily procured source of protein for paleoindians, and nutritionally served up a double bonus.  In addition to the meat female turtles traveling overland carried 30-40 eggs–an important source of fat, vitamins, and minerals.  Turtle eggs are supposedly every bit as delicious as chicken eggs.  However, there is a curious characteristic about them that differentiates them from chicken eggs.  When boiled the yolks turn solid, but the whites remain runny no matter how long they’re boiled.  Georgia Leonard Herter, author of the Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices, claims turtle eggs are superior to chicken eggs for baking. 

Most turtle species reproduce so rapidly that paleoindian exploitation had little effect on their numbers.  But it’s likely paleoindian overhunting (if killing a slow-moving giant tortoies can be called hunting) probably did wipe out the 2 Pleistocene species of giant land tortoises–Hesperotestudo crassicutata, and Hesperotestudo incisa. See my article–

I’ve never eaten turtle meat, and I rank it second only to squirrel of wild game meats I’d like to try.  (I collect vintage cookbooks.  They all have nothing but good things to say about squirrel which is reputed to make an excellent gravy.)  100 years ago, turtle was popular across the country, and every fine restaurant served turtle soup.  Now, it is relegatd to regional delicacy, popular only in Louisiana and a few mid-Atlantic states.  Most kids today, raised on a sanitized diet of pizza and chicken nuggets, would probably be revolted by the idea of eating turtle.  I was amused to read some woman complain on her blog when she bought snapper soup, mistakenly believing she was buying red snapper soup, not turtle soup.  (Fish soup in a can didn’t sound bad enough?) When she came home and carefully read the ingredients, she was outraged and grossed out.  She blamed the company making the soup as if they were being deliberately deceptive. She thought it bizarre that anyone would eat turtle. My objection to turtle meat is the price and availability.  There is none, not even canned turtle soup, sold in any Augusta, Georgia supermarket at this present time.  I used to see the canned soup, but not anymore.  Online prices are $18 a pound, not including shipping.  I’m not paying that kind of price for meat that’s probably tough and best put through a meat grinder.

I suppose I could always catch one.  The way to kill and clean turtle is gruesome.  One is supposed to tease the head with a stick.  When the turtle snaps and latches on the stick, its neck is extended, and a short hatchet can be used to chop off the head.  Euell Gibbons then suggests scrubbing the shell down with soap and water to wash off the mud before butchering.  I may have to wait for the apocalypse and desperate circumstances to go to that much trouble for protein.


3 Responses to “The Paleoindians Probably ate more Turtle than Megafauna”

  1. James Robert Smith Says:

    I wouldn’t want to kill one just on general principle. I have heard that turtles make for fine eating. My dad thought so, but that was one of the few bits of wild game he never served when I was a kid.

    The last time I encountered a really big one was while at work one day. I was in a neighborhood where I’d never been and was driving past a large creek when I saw something moving. It turned out to be a really, really big snapping turtle. So large that is was moving in a very slow, plodding way.

    My first thought was that some local resident would see it and kill it, since it was certainly large enough to injure a person, especially a child who might try to molest it. What I ended up doing was stopping and watching to see that it was headed back toward the creek, which it slowly did. Not sure how much it would have weighed…but my feeling was that it was in the 20 pound range, for sure.

  2. Mark L. Says:

    Yes, snappers are very good eating. My tribe (Choctaw Apache tribe of Ebarb) has an alligator snapper as it’s symbol…and it’s not because we like them as pets. I’d attach the image, but I don’t think it will show here: (
    Anyway, I’d argue that a lot of turtles (non-snapping) were almost semi-domesticated by paleoindians, and easily moved from pond to pond by person, as well as naturally, much like we do with ducks now (non-migrating). I did see an alligator snapper on Redstone Arsenal in the 80’s though….huge one. Haven’t seen one there since though. I’ve seen a common snapper crossing Huntsville mountain on Carl T. Jones, which seems crazy if anyone knows the road (600-800 feet elevation from valley floor).
    I love turtles, but love to eat them too. There’s an organ on the back legs that stinks to high heaven if you puncture it, so if anyone tries to dress a turtle to eat, beware…it will spoil the whole animal if you get the liquid from the organ on the meat.

  3. markgelbart Says:

    Indians may have kept some turtles in pits. I vaguely recall that early pioneers also kept snapping turtles in pits.

    The alligator snapping turtle is endangered. It was overhunted for the canned soup industry over a decade ago. That’s a shame too. Some individuals were so old they had musket balls and arrowheads embedded in their shells.

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