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Early human occupation of the Red Sea coast of Eritrea during the last interglacial


The geographical origin of modern humans is the subject of ongoing scientific debate. The ‘multiregional evolution’ hypothesis argues that modern humans evolved semi-independently in Europe, Asia and Africa between 100,000 and 40,000 years ago1, whereas the ‘out of Africa’ hypothesis contends that modern humans evolved in Africa between 200 and 100 kyr ago, migrating to Eurasia at some later time2. Direct palaeontological, archaeological and biological evidence is necessary to resolve this debate. Here we report the discovery of early Middle Stone Age artefacts in an emerged reef terrace on the Red Sea coast of Eritrea, which we date to the last interglacial (about 125 kyr ago) using U–Th mass spectrometry techniques on fossil corals. The geological setting of these artefacts shows that early humans occupied coastal areas and exploited near-shore marine food resources in East Africa by this time. Together with similar, tentatively dated discoveries from South Africa3 this is the earliest well-dated evidence for human adaptation to a coastal marine environment, heralding an expansion in the range and complexity of human behaviour from one end of Africa to the other. This new, widespread adaptive strategy may, in part, signal the onset of modern human behaviour, which supports an African origin for modern humans by 125 kyr ago.

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Figure 1: The study area.
Figure 2: Archaeological finds and their locations.

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Permission to conduct field work was granted by the Department of Mines of the Ministry of Mines, Energy and Water Resources of Eritrea. We are grateful to A. Kibreab, T. Keleta, A. Mesfin and M. Abraha, G. Ogubazghi and B. Woldehaimanot, and the staff of the National Museum of Eritrea for their support. Financial support was provided by grants from Anadarko Petroleum Company, the National Science Foundation, the Institute of Human Origins, the Royal Ontario Museum and the University of Toronto. Donations by TOTAL Eritrea are gratefully acknowledged. We thank M. Kusmu, L. Le Vert, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Canadian Consulate and the US Embassy in Asmara. We also thank M. Abdelsalam, T. Andemariam, J. Aronson, B. Collins, C. Cermignani, M. Chazan, S. Churchill, D. Doumenc, E. Goodman, M. Gorton, D. Guinot, Y. Lam, A. Martyn, N. Mohammed, N.-H. Nguyen, J. Pandolfi, K. Reed, H. Shoshani, G. Smithwalter, R. Stern, M. Tesfaye, J. Trondle, M. de Saint Laurent, F. Taylor, G. Watson, C. Vondra and T. Yemane for assistance and/or discussions. Bifaces were first observed on the coast near Abdur by C. Hillman and reported to RCW. in 1995.

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Correspondence to Robert C. Walter.

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Walter, R., Buffler, R., Bruggemann, J. et al. Early human occupation of the Red Sea coast of Eritrea during the last interglacial. Nature 405, 65–69 (2000).

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