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Early human use of marine resources and pigment in South Africa during the Middle Pleistocene

Nature volume 449, pages 905908 (18 October 2007) | Download Citation



Genetic and anatomical evidence suggests that Homo sapiens arose in Africa between 200 and 100 thousand years (kyr) ago1,2, and recent evidence indicates symbolic behaviour may have appeared 135–75 kyr ago3,4. From 195–130 kyr ago, the world was in a fluctuating but predominantly glacial stage (marine isotope stage MIS6)5; much of Africa was cooler and drier, and dated archaeological sites are rare6,7. Here we show that by 164 kyr ago (±12 kyr) at Pinnacle Point (on the south coast of South Africa) 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 kyr ago8,9. 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 post-70 kyr ago10,11,12. 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 over the length of MIS6.

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We thank the ISSR staff at ASU, the MAP staff for their assistance, the Dias Museum for field facilities, SAHRA and HWC for permits, and Waelbroeck for helping with sea level data. This research was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation (to C.W.M.) and the Hyde Family Foundation (to C.W.M.).

Author Contributions C.W.M. directed the excavations and is the project principal investigator. Authors made contributions in the following areas: M.B.-M., U-series dating; J.B., analysis of orientation and dip; E.F., three-dimensional GIS; P.G. and P.K., micromorphology and geology; A.I.R.H., geology and sediment magnetics; Z.J., OSL dating; A.J., shell analysis; T.M., E.T. and H.M.W., lithics; P.J.N., co-direction of the excavations; and I.W., ochre. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Author information


  1. Institute of Human Origins,

    • Curtis W. Marean
    •  & Erin Thompson
  2. School of Human Evolution and Social Change, PO Box 872402, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona 85287-2402, USA

    • Jocelyn Bernatchez
    •  & Hope M. Williams
  3. Geological Survey of Israel, 30 Malchei Israel Street, Jerusalem 95501, Israel

    • Miryam Bar-Matthews
  4. Department of Anthropology, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida 32611, USA

    • Erich Fisher
  5. Department of Archaeology, Boston University, 675 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, USA

    • Paul Goldberg
  6. Human Origins Group, School of Medical Sciences, The University of New South Wales, Sydney NSW 2052, Australia

    • Andy I. R. Herries
  7. School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, 2522, Australia

    • Zenobia Jacobs
  8. Department of Archaeology, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch 7701, South Africa

    • Antonieta Jerardino
  9. Ephoreia of Palaeoanthropology-Speleology, Ministry of Culture, Ardittou 34b, Athens 11636, Greece

    • Panagiotis Karkanas
  10. Department of Anthropology, University of Washington, Box 353100, Seattle, Washington 98195-3100, USA

    • Tom Minichillo
  11. Archaeology Division, Iziko-South African Museum, PO Box 61, Cape Town 8000, South Africa

    • Peter J. Nilssen
  12. 58 Eastdown House, Downs Estate, Amhurst Road, London E8 2AT, United Kingdom

    • Ian Watts


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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Curtis W. Marean.

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