Going Coastal Sea Cave Yields Ancient Signs of Modern Behavior

By Bower, B. | Science News, October 20, 2007 | Go to article overview

Going Coastal Sea Cave Yields Ancient Signs of Modern Behavior


Bower, B., Science News


At Pinnacle Point on South Africa's southern coast, a cave perched above the sea has provided scientists with evidence of a set of surprisingly complex behaviors practiced by Stone Age people about 164,000 years ago, near the evolutionary dawn of Homo sapiens. Our species emerged an estimated 200,000 years ago.

A team led by anthropologist Curtis W. Marean of Arizona State University in Tempe found three critical clues in the cave that point to modern-human behavior: the remains of mussels and other shellfish, 57 pieces of reddish pigment probably used for body coloring or other symbolic acts, and more than 1,800 stone implements, including small, expertly crafted blades.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Ancient Africans took up coastal living between 195,000 and 130,000 years ago, when a relatively cold, dry climate inland reduced the number of edible plants and animals, Marean and his coworkers propose in the Oct. 18 Nature. Shellfish harvested from exposed, rocky shores and from tidal pools offered a stable food source that allowed populations to grow and become less nomadic, in Marean's view.

Symbolic behavior as a form of social expression could then have flourished, he suggests.

Using modern hunter-gatherer societies as a guide, Marean suspects that coastal living involved a shift from male-dominated big game hunting to female-led foraging for plants and shellfish. "If shellfish were important, it means that women were a key component of that new economy and may have held substantial economic power," he says.

The earliest previous evidence for shellfish eating and seaside living by modern humans came from a 125,000-year-old East African site.

Pinnacle Point artifacts lay in soil dated by a technique that indicates when sediment was last exposed to light. …

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