Learning to Beach comb – an Essential Survival Technique for Early Man

A study by American palaeoanthropologists published in the journal “Nature” provides evidence of early man (Homo sapiens) turning to a beach-combing existence to survive global climate change.

Early Man

A South African cave located at Pinnacle Point on the Indian Ocean shows evidence of periodic habitation by humans, with the first evidence of people living in the cave dating back to around 164,000 years ago, a time when much of the world’s freshwater was locked up in ice sheets.  The lack of free water in the environment led much of Africa to suffer drought and put the population of modern humans under extreme pressure.

A Harsh Environment

The harsh environment drove many tribes to extinction, but it seems our beach-combing ancestors were able to survive by living off the bounty brought in by the tides twice a day.  The scientists from Arizona State University excavated the cave and discovered shellfish remains, small stone tools called bladelets and evidence of the use of ochre from deposits dated to more than 160,000 years ago.  The Pinnacle Point cave is extremely important and has yielded much information on the ascent of man as modern humans are believed to have evolved around 180,000 to 200,000 years ago in southern Africa.

The oldest finds in the cave trace the early origins of our own species and link modern people to a coastal environment much earlier in our evolution than previously thought.  Until the discoveries at Pinnacle Point, the earliest evidence for humans living beside the sea was from strata 125,000 years old.  These remains pushes back our association with a beach-combing lifestyle by 40,000 years.

Beach-combing Existence

It seems that these people plucked shellfish from the rock pools and perhaps used the small bladelets as barbs on wooden harpoons to catch fish.  It seems that shelled animals were consumed in large numbers, the scientists have unearthed the remains of whelks, limpets and molluscs.  A fragment of a whale barnacle found in the cave may also indicate that our early ancestors scoured the beach for whale and seal carcases.  The meat and blubber would have been a rich source of protein and carbohydrate.

The evidence of ochre has important implications for our social development.  Ochre is formed from hematite rocks.  These can be ground up to produce a red pigment that could have been used as  a body paint or red dye.  This may indicate that these early humans were already practising symbolic behaviours, using ochre in this way is a trait that would not look out of place in a site dating from the New Stone Age.

The stone tools found in the cave also indicate that these people were using technologically advanced tools, that were to remain unchanged for 150,000 years.

Stone Tools

These stone tools bare the scratch marks from use by their owners and the stone at the bottom of the picture shows evidence of ochre.

The Pinnacle Point cave, located at Mossel Bay, half-way between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth would have been an ideal home for early humans.  At the time it was first settled, the cave would have been 3 miles inland, but high up overlooking the bay.  This would have made the cave safe from any flooding or extreme high tides as well as providing an excellent vantage point to spot potential food on the beach below.

Evidence of human habitation can be found in various strata in the cave, with the first settlers living around 164,000 years ago, marking the start of perhaps several hundred years of use.  The site seems to have been settled again around 140,000 years ago and then there is evidence of permanent settlement between 120,000 and 90,000 BC.

A Survival Strategy

Scientists have long speculated about how early humans coped with the extreme droughts caused by the Ice Ages.  Many believe that H. sapiens nearly went extinct during this period, when the extremely dry climate wiped out a large number of mammal species and led ourselves to the brink of extinction.  It seems it was coastal sites like Pinnacle Point that enabled our ancestors to hold on and eek out an existence.  The environment improved when the ice sheets retreated, enabling seasonal rains to return and to become more certain.

In these conditions, early mankind was able to flourish and migrate out of Africa (often via maritime and coastal routes).  Around 120,000 years ago man began to settle areas beyond their homeland of southern Africa, into the Middle East and eventually Europe via ocean coastal routes and routes along the Red Sea.

Our species came so very close to extinction due to the harsh environmental conditions that some scientists have estimated that there were just a few thousand people left living in isolated pockets of Africa.  It is from these people that all 7 billion of us are descended.  Although we are now extremely diverse with Chinese, Indians, Europeans and Americans, our genetic make-up reveals how closely related we all our to each other.

In fact subscribers to the “Daughters of Eve Hypothesis”  believe that there are just seven original human bloodlines, each one linked to a group of early humans and their migration route from Africa.  Our genome is so constrained as a result of this early extinction leaving few ancestors from which the rest of us are related; that viruses such as bird flu, although originating in the Far East can be lethal to Westerners too.

It is worth thinking about… a person reading this web log living in Basingstoke, England is more closely related genetically to a Chinese farmer in a remote part of Mongolia than one mountain gorilla is to another mountain gorilla in the next valley.  With this week’s United Nations report on the problems caused by human population growth, the lack of resources and the impact of the human race on the environment, some comfort may be taken from the fact that our species has survived dramatic climatic change before.

They adapted to a beach-combing lifestyle to cope with the lack of other food resources, but despite man’s ingenuity, our species came so close to the brink of extinction, and besides, it is unlikely that there will be enough sites such as Pinnacle Point to go round next time.

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