Leapin’ Lizards! Medieval Arabs Ate the Scaly Creatures

Image: Spiny-tailed lizard
The spiny-tailed lizard is found throughout the Middle East. W. Abu-Azizeh

Medieval desert-dwelling Arabs in Saudi Arabia ate lizards after the advent of Islam, which generally prohibits eating reptiles, new research suggests.

Though historical and anthropological texts had mentioned the taste for these scaly desert snacks, the find is the first archaeological evidence confirming the lizard's presence in the Arabian diet, study co-author Hervé Monchot, a zooarchaeologist at the Université-Paris Sorbonne, wrote in an email to Live Science.

The lizards were probably eaten because they are "an excellent source of protein," Monchot said. [Arabian Desert: Aerial Photos of Mysterious Stone Structures]

Monchot and his colleagues found the evidence while excavating an oasis site in the Saudi Arabian desert known as al-Yamama, which has been occupied from the second century B.C. to the 1800s. The site, which was part of a large mosque complex, contained layers of food waste filled with camel and goat bones.

The bone dumps also contained 145 skeletal remains of a lizard, most likely the spiny-tailed lizard, Uromastyx aegyptia. The spiny-tailed lizard, which can grow to a length of about 2.2 feet (70 centimeters), is found throughout the desert regions of the Middle East. The bones were found in layers that spanned almost the entire period of human occupation there, and a cut mark on the leg bone of one lizard also indicated butchery.

The desert-dwelling people of the region may have been butchering and eating these animals in the same way for at least 2,000 years.

The findings were published online Feb. 26 in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

— Tia Ghose, Live Science

This is a condensed version of a report from Live Science. Read the full report. Follow Tia Ghose on Twitter and Google+. Follow Live Science on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.