WASHINGTON — In one of the earliest hints of "modern" living, humans 164,000 years ago put on primitive makeup and hit the seashore for steaming mussels, new archaeological finds show.
Call it a beach party for early man.
But it's a beach party thrown by people who weren't supposed to be advanced enough for this type of behavior. What was found in a cave in South Africa may change how scientists believe Homo sapiens marched into modernity.
Instead of undergoing a revolution into modern living about 40,000 to 70,000 years ago, as commonly thought, man may have become modern in stuttering fits and starts, or through a long slow march that began even earlier. At least that's the case being made in a study appearing in the journal Nature on Thursday.
Researchers found three hallmarks of modern life at Pinnacle Point overlooking the Indian Ocean near South Africa's Mossel Bay: harvested and cooked seafood, reddish pigment from ground rocks, and early tiny blade technology. Scientific optical dating techniques show that these hallmarks were from 164,000 years ago, plus or minus 12,000 years.
"Together as a package this looks like the archaeological record of a much later time period," said study author Curtis Marean, professor of anthropology at the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University.
This means humans were eating seafood about 40,000 years earlier than previously thought. And this is the earliest record of humans eating something other than what they caught or gathered on the land, Marean said. Most of what Marean found were the remnants of brown mussels, but he also found black mussels, small saltwater clams, sea snails and even a barnacle that indicates whale blubber or skin was brought into the cave.
Marean figured the early people, probably women, had to trudge two to three miles to where the mussels, clams and snails were harvested and to bring them back to the cave. Then they put them over hot rocks to cook. When the food was done, the shells popped open in a process similar to modern-day mussel-steaming, but without the pot.
Marean and colleagues tried out that ancient cooking technique in a kind of archaeological test kitchen.
"We've prepped them the same way," Marean said in telephone interview from South Africa. "They're a little less moist (than modern steamed mussels). They definitely lose some moisture."
Marean also found 57 pieces of ground-up rock that would have been reddish- or pinkish-brown. That would be used for self-decoration and sending social signals to other people, much the way makeup is used now, he said.
There have been reports of earlier but sporadic pigment use in Africa. The same goes with rocks that were fashioned into small pointy tools.
But having all three together shows a grouping of people that is almost modern, Marean said. Seafood harvesting, unlike other hunter-gatherer activities, encourages people to stay put, and that leads to more social interactions, he said.
Yet 110,000 years later, no such modern activity, except for seafood dining, could be found in that part of South Africa, said Alison Brooks, a George Washington University anthropology professor who was not associated with Marean's study. That shows that the dip into modern life was not built upon, said Brooks, who called Marean's work "a fantastic find."
Similar "blips of rather precocious kinds of behaviors seem to be emerging at certain sites," said Kathy Schick, an Indiana University anthropologist and co-director of the Stone Age Institute. Schick and Brooks said Marean's work shows that anthropologists have to revise their previous belief in a steady "human revolution" about 40,000 to 70,000 years ago.
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