Stone age human ancestors residing
near caves at South Africa’s Pinnacle
Point (shown) may have learned to track
the tides in order to harvest shellfish.
days each month when ocean tides safely
Tantalizing traces of complex thinking
and behavior, including lunar literacy,
have turned up at South Africa’s Pinnacle
Point, a cave-specked promontory that
juts into the Indian Ocean. Chunks of
dark red pigment and strikingly beautiful seashells found by Marean’s team in
one cave attest to ancient ritual activities.
Stone points unearthed in the same cave
sport glossy patches, signs that the rock
was heated to make it easier to work with.
The finds challenge the long-standing
view that Stone Age people did not think
abstractly and perform complex rituals
until about 50,000 years ago.
People chanced upon Pinnacle Point
and its dietary bounty, Marean says, only
after global cooling had rendered much
of Africa barren and uninhabitable. Several genetic studies suggest that modern human numbers throughout Africa
plummeted to a few hundred breeding
individuals around that difficult time.
“Our excavations may have intercepted ancient people who shadowed the
shifting shoreline and are the ancestors
of everyone on the planet,” Marean says.
Research on Pinnacle Point’s mussel-seeking moon trackers exemplifies a
growing scientific conviction that fish
and shellfish have played a largely unappreciated role in brain and mind evolution throughout the history of the Homo
genus, which appeared at least 2 million
years ago and includes people today.
Though several East African savanna
sites contain butchered animal bones,
signaling carnivorous tastes among
human ancestors, some scientists now
argue that red meat has been oversold
as a dietary staple.
At a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, held in
Minneapolis in April, researchers argued
that ancient menus focused heavily on
food from lakes, rivers and oceans. New
work presented at the meeting pointed
lay among scraped and fractured shells of tortoises and
water-dwelling turtles. Several catfish bones bore tool
marks made by individuals who cut off the heads
of their catches. Whatever
members of the human evolutionary family once dined
at FwJj20, they needed only
basic implements to put
catfish and other lake animals in hungry mouths.
“A large rock is probably all that ancient hominids would have needed
to catch fish,” Braun said
at the anthropology meeting. Even simpler fishing
techniques may extend
deep into primate prehistory. Orangutans have
been found to snatch catfish from shallow ponds
bare-handed and chase the
finned snacks out of deeper
water with poking sticks
(SN: 5/7/11, p. 16).
A steady diet of fish would have nutritionally powered brain expansion in
early members of the Homo genus, such
as the untidy Lake Turkana crowd, in
The Lake Turkana finds leave a sweet
taste in archaeologist Kathlyn Stewart’s
mouth. In a 1994 study, Stewart, of the
Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa,
concluded that abundant fish, crocodile
and turtle remains at five sites within
Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge represented
leftovers from hominid meals. Finds at
these nearly 2-million-year-old locations, which have yielded fossils of
early Homo and a related lineage called
Paranthropus, also include butchered
bones of land animals, which have
received the lion’s share of scientific
attention for more than 30 years.
Game hunting occasionally occurred
at Olduvai Gorge, Stewart pointed out at
the meeting in April, but aquatic foods
provided stable, high-quality nutrition.
Pollen data and chemical analyses of fos-
sils indicate that hominids began hanging
to lakeside fishing in East
Africa nearly 2 million years
ago, the shoreline shellfish
harvesting among Homo
sapiens at Pinnacle Point
starting more than 160,000
years ago and sea voyages
to Pacific Ocean islands by
an unlikely group of New
World settlers around
12,000 years ago.
Food scientists at the
meeting emphasized that
nutrients essential for
brain growth are much
more abundant in fish and
shellfish than in red meat
or any other food. And
grabbing catfish out of shallow waters, not to mention
scooping up handfuls of
shellfish along the shore,
may be far easier than hunting land animals or scaring
predators away from meaty
carcasses, says archaeologist
Jon Erlandson of the University of Oregon in Eugene.
Shellfish collecting and fishing probably began early among members of the
Homo genus, Erlandson says. “These
foods later could have provided nutrients
that enabled the evolution of fully modern brain size and cognition.”
Seashells found at a
South African cave were
probably carried there
by early peoples.
Erlandson suspects that, before Homo
sapiens’ Pinnacle Point pursuits, fishing
was a catch-as-catch-can affair. Consider ancient cuisine unearthed on the
eastern shore of Kenya’s Lake Turkana.
Someone there bellied up to an aquatic
buffet nearly 2 million years ago, leaving
a mess that only an evolutionary scientist could love.
At a site unceremoniously dubbed
FwJj20, a team led by anthropologist
David Braun of the University of Cape
Town in South Africa unearthed butchered remains of fish, turtles and crocodiles. Remains of animals that don’t live
in the water but often reside nearby, such
as tortoises, birds, giraffes, hippos, rhinos
and antelope, also turned up. Stone tools