We can be fairly sure that our species, Homo sapiens, evolved 150,000-200,000 years ago, in Africa. These dates are supported by both genetic & fossil evidence. But various milestones in our cultural evolution are rather harder to date.
A paper published last year (Marean et al. 2007) and summarised by McBrearty and Stringer (2007) describes evidence that early sapiens living on the South African coast were using both pigments (red ochre) and marine food resources (shellfish) around 165,000 years ago. This fits with the school of thought that says that complex modern behaviours developed gradually from the first appearance of our species. (The opposing interpretation is that modern behaviour appeared suddenly, about 45,000 years ago – the time when the great cave paintings of Lascaux and other European sites were created.)
One aspect of modern behaviour is our use of visual cues to show group membership. Until now the earliest evidence for such self-decoration came from African sites 80,000 years old (& some Asian finds from around 110,000 years ago). Marean’s team found pieces of ochre, some of which seem to have been deliberately ground down, in a cave at Pinnacle Point, South Africa, and suggest that the pigment was used for body painting or perhaps to colour other objects.
In another ‘earliest use of’, the team also found evidence – in the form of shellfish remains that included mussels, periwinkles, limpets & whelks – that the people living at the site were collecting and eating shellfish. (There was also a whale barnacle ie a species of barnacle that lives on whales. Maybe the Pinnacle Point people had found and scavenged a whale carcass?) Marean & his colleagues suggest that shellfish were a predictable and reliable food source, relied upon during the very dry conditions of an ice age glacial period, when other foodstuffs were in short supply. McBrearty & Stringer comment that this may not be the earliest use of shellfish, but that other possible coastal sites were destroyed by the rise in sea levels during interglacial periods. The Pinnacle Point site survived because it’s sufficiently high above sea level that it wasn’t swamped.
This is a tantalising suggestion that what we think of as ‘modern’ human behaviour may go back a very long way indeed.
C.W. Marean & 13 others (2007) Early human use of marine resources and pigment in South Africa during the Middle Pleistocene. Nature 449: 905-908
S. McBrearty & C. Stringer (2007) The coast in colour. Nature 449: 793-794