African Cave Yields Earliest Proof of Beach Living

October 17, 2007

The earliest modern humans probably arose on the savannas of East Africa, but a new study shows they soon learned that life could be good on the beach.

Excavation of a sea cave on the tip of South Africa has shown that by 165,000 years ago people were already living near the coast and relying heavily on a diet of shellfish.

Researchers found bones and shell fragments from 15 kinds of marine animals—including snails, limpets, and brown mussels—dated some 45,000 years earlier than other sites found to have seafood remains.

The ancient cave dwellers also had sophisticated stone-bladed tools and were using a pigment called ochre, perhaps for painting their bodies, caves, or other objects.

The findings, from a site known as Pinnacle Point, suggest that even the earliest modern humans already had complex lives and sophisticated tools.

The researchers argue that eating seafood was the last major shift in the human diet before the advent of agriculture about 150,000 years later.

This shift in diet could have had a profound effect on human societies, said study leader Curtis Marean of Arizona State University in Tempe.

"When people began to exploit seafood, they started to reduce their mobility," he said. "They didn't have to move around the landscape, chasing down their food."

This probably allowed group sizes to swell, social interactions to become more complex, and for people to use symbols in more complex ways, Marean explained.

"When you start to eat shellfish, it has a ripple effect," he added.

Early Tools and Pigments

The pieces of ochre—a common iron-containing mineral—from the cave ranged from dull reddish-brown to brilliant red.

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