Thursday, November 01, 2007


By 164,000 years ago, Homo sapiens had developed a taste for shellfish — much earlier than previously thought, scientists reported recently in the journal Nature — as the species was adapting to life in caves on the craggy coast of southern Africa.

Exploring a cave in a steep cliff overlooking the ocean, an international team of scientists found deposits of shellfish remains, hearths, small stone blades and fragments of hematite, some of which, the scientists believe, had been ground for use as the coloring agent red ochre that sometimes had symbolic meaning.

“The shellfish,” the researchers concluded, “may have been crucial to the survival of these early humans as they expanded their home ranges” in response to the cooler and drier conditions that had prevailed for thousands of years in the interior of Africa. The discovery was made in a cave at Pinnacle Point near Mossel Bay on the southern coast of South Africa, about 200 miles east of Cape Town.

Curtis W. Marean, the team leader and a paleoanthropologist with the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, said, “Shellfish was one of the last additions to the human diet before domesticated plants and animals were introduced.”

Previous research had indicated that human ancestors had for ages depended solely on terrestrial plants and animals. Both fossil and genetic data show that modern humans evolved 150,000 to 200,000 years ago, but archaeological evidence for the emergence of modern behavior in technology, creativity, symbolic thinking and lifestyles is sparse.

But six years ago, at Blombos Cave, near Pinnacle Point, archaeologists uncovered 77,000-year-old tools along with pigments and engraved stones suggesting symbolic behavior, a sign of early creativity. Now, at the Pinnacle Point cave site, the shellfish remains reveal another important innovation.

The presence of red ochre at Pinnacle Point, Dr. Marean’s team also reported, indicated that at this time humans already “inhabited a cognitive world enriched by symbols.” The researchers said the material had both symbolic and utilitarian functions and was probably used for body painting and for coloring artifacts.

The search for early human use of marine resources, supported by the National Science Foundation, centered on the cave at Pinnacle Point because of its position high on a cliff. Other seashore sites of early human occupation had been inundated by the rise in sea level, beginning about 115,000 years ago at the end of Africa’s long arid conditions. Forced to seek new sources of food, some of the people migrated to the shore in search of “famine food.” At Pinnacle Point, the discovery team reported, they feasted on a variety of marine life, brown mussels, giant periwinkles and whelks.

So on the southern shore of Africa, Dr. Marean said in a statement issued by Arizona State, a small population of cave-dwelling modern humans struggled and survived through the prevailing cold, eating shellfish and developing somewhat advanced technologies.


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