Origins of mankind on African shore

SOUTH AFRICA’S beautiful Garden Route is much travelled by tourists.

The famous coastline, stretching eastwards from the Cape of Good Hope, has attractions both natural and man-made.

It boasts the mildest climate in the world but the route’s greatest claim to fame isn’t mentioned in the tourist guidebooks; it runs through what may have been the home of our ancestors.

Curtis Marean, an anthropologist at Arizona State University, believes that the forebears of every person alive today lived in sea caves around Mossel Bay, on the famous route.

His article ‘When the sea saved humanity’, in the August edition of Scientific American, proposes solutions to two great puzzles.

The first concerns human genetic diversity. There are almost seven billion people on Earth but, as one expert put it; “there is more diversity in one social group of 55 chimps than in the entire human population”; we are all descended, and quite recently, from a small group of people.

Did some great disaster long ago reduce the human race to a few hundred individuals? If so, when and where did this occur? Marean claims to have found the answer.

The earliest fossils of modern humans were discovered in Ethiopia. They are 195,000 years old, suggesting that homo sapiens evolved in Africa shortly before that time. The climate was hospitable and there was plenty of food. Then, Marean argues, everything changed; temperatures dropped and much of Africa became arid desert. During the cold period, which lasted 60,000 years, almost everybody perished. Only those who lived along the sea shore at Mossel Bay survived.

Excavating a cave near Pinnacle Point, Marean’s team found evidence of intermittent occupation from 164,000 to 30,000 years ago. There were tools and hearths, some of them dating to the beginning of this period.

Discarded shells were found by the archaeologists. “Mossel” means “mussel” in Afrikaans; the location, today, is rich in molluscs. Shellfish, snails and the occasional sea mammal, provided protein for the ancient cave-dwellers. The caverns in which the people lived were close to the shore but sufficiently high up that the sea would not enter.

Nor was shellfish the only food available. The Cape Floral Region, today, is a botanist’s paradise. The range and variety of plants there is extraordinary. Table Mountain, alone, has more species than all of Britain and Ireland. High energy-storage bulbs and tubers would have been available to cave-dwellers in arid cold times. Cooking could render such items edible. Speculating on the possible lifestyles of those ancient people, Marean makes his second dramatic claim, challenging the current belief that ‘cognitive modernity came long after anatomical modernity’.

Although the homo sapiens of 200,000 years ago, were physically the same as us, no carved figurines, cave drawings or decorated artefacts more than 40,000 years old have ever been found. Did our ancestors fail to develop art and culture only then? Did they even have language?

Surely physical and cultural changes would develop together, each driving the other, a process of co-evolution in the struggle for survival. The apparent gap between the two has puzzled the experts.

Marean argues that predicting optimum tidal conditions for sea-food gathering, and mapping the distribution and optimum locations of tuber species, required sophisticated cognition and communication.

Some of the tools found by his team needed very advanced techniques for their construction. The stone knives and spearheads could only have been created using elaborate heat-treatment processes which took great ingenuity to develop. Such advanced technology, he argues, depended on training, sophisticated language skills and team effort. Our intellects saved us.

His conclusion regarding the use of red ochre, iron oxide, found in the caves is more speculative. This, he suggests, was ground to powder, mixed with animal fat and used as body paint. If so, it’s the earliest record of artistic expression recorded to date, well over 100,000 years before the next claimant.

About 123,000 years ago, world temperatures rose again.

The Mossel Bay people moved out to recolonise Africa. They would go on to conquer the world. If Marean is right, we are all South Africans.


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