Amidst the echo of crashing waves and seagulls in a cave on Pinnacle Point, Mossel Bay, South Africa, anthropologist Curtis Marean co-director of a team of archaeologists stares outward to the deep swells of the Indian Ocean. Perhaps in a brief quiet contemplation that this same view was experienced by our modern sapient ancestors over 164,000 years ago.
“Modern humans likely evolved in Africa between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago, and the preceding 200,000 years sets the foundations for this emergence. It is well documented that the bio-behavioural adaptations of hunter-gatherers are intimately tied to climate and environment, yet we know relatively little about this period in Africa…A focal point of our research is the rich series of caves, and their long history of anthropogenic and geogenic sedimentation, along the coast at Pinnacle Point. These caves have complex life histories that, when properly reconstructed, form the core of our understandings of paleoclimate, paleoenvironment, and human occupation…”
-Prof. Dr. Curtis W. Marean (CWM). (In an Abstract for presentation at XVII International Union for Quaternary Research (INQUA) Congress 2007, with Dr Miryam Bar-Matthews, Israel Erich Fisher, Dr Paul Goldberg, Dr Andy Herries, Dr Zenobia Jacobs, Dr Panagiotis Karkanas, and Dr Peter Nilssen.)
What started out as an investigation to develop paleoclimate and paleoenvironmental records in geologically unique series of cave sites on the South African coastline, soon developed into a 39,000 year jump in actual archaeological evidence.
“Together as a package this looks like the archaeological record of a much later time period (But)Our results document several life history tracts that begin with a pre-400,000 cutting of the caves. Several caves exhibit beach deposits, which were followed by several phases of non-anthropogenic sediment, mostly in the form of Aeolian (wind) sands. Cave 13B is occupied by people by 180,000, is sealed by a dune at about 130,000, reopens and occupied by people from 120-90,000, sealed again with speleothem formation from 90-40,000, and then reopened. Crevice Cave is partially closed by the same dune at 130 000, and then corked by 90 000, with significant speleothem formation from 90-40,000, the latter of which provides a detailed isotopic record of climatic and environmental change. All the caves appear to open after 30 000, perhaps due to a catastrophic event that removed the Aeolianite skin sealing the caves.” -CWM
On site Marean and his team uncovered over 1,800 stone implements, 57 pieces of prepared red pigment and the mountainous remains of countless shells from a wide variety seafood from brown and black mussels, clams, snails and even barnacles found primarily only on whales. But it did not stop there by using:
“A combined analysis of sediments, archaeology, OSL (Optically stimulated luminescence) dating, U-series (Uranium-lead radiometric) dating, and isotopic (One of two or more atoms with the same atomic number but with different numbers of neutrons) analysis of speleothem (cave sediment) allows a multi-facetted reconstruction of this life history. This data is then integrated with 3D GIS (A 3D image-analysis zooarchaeological recording system pioneered by Yoshiko Abe and Curtis Marean) based model of the paleolandscape enriched with an integration of bathymetric (study of underwater depth) data and sea level curve allows a multi-facetted reconstruction of this life history”-CWM
Marean’s team dated what was recovered to between 176 – 152,000 years old or 164000 with a 12000 year variance. Previous to Pinnacle Point the earliest evidence of modern human coastal living came from East Africa around 125,000 years ago. So effectively Marean’s discovery has pushed back the advent of our modern ancestors by 39,000 years to 164,000 or roughly 161993 BCE.
Ok so we were eating seafood, using makeup and carving stone knives, so why is the time evidence of this type of coastal living important? We know from archaeological DNA analysis modern humans emerged around 200,000 years ago. But what these three activities together signify is a major shift from nomadic hunting-gathering towards settled cultivation. In other words the very beginning’s of a settled modern human society at a much earlier time period than was previously evidenced.
“Here we show thatat Pinnacle, humans expanded their diet to include marine resources, perhaps as a response to these harsh environmental conditions. The earliest previous evidence for human use of marine resources and coastal habitats was dated to 125,000 years ago. Coincident with this diet and habitat expansion is an early use and modification of pigment, probably for symbolic behaviour, as well as the production of bladelet stone tool technology, previously dated to only 70,000 years ago. Shellfish may have been crucial to the survival of these early humans as they expanded their home ranges to include coastlines and followed the shifting position of the coast when sea level fluctuated.” -CWM
Until the findings in East Africa and now Pinnacle Point it was generally believed that modern man only began to settle, cultivate and subsequently rapidly develop 10,000 – 45,0000 years ago. What Pinnacle Point suggests is the transition from nomadic small groups of hunter-gatherers to settled large groups of harvesters and then cultivators, occurred not rapidly and recent, but earlier and therefore far slower, about 119,000 years slower. It is believed the more complex interaction of larger numbers of people in a settled environment directly led to the genesis of today’s diverse and infinitely complex global population.