Who Ate the First Oyster? Cave May Hold an Answer

Scientists exploring a cave in South Africa report evidence of shellfish dinners enjoyed by humans who lived 164,000 years ago. Anthropologists say the find could point to one of the earliest examples of modern behavior.

The discovery also calls to mind a line from 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift: "He was a bold man that first ate an oyster." But now, the first people to eat shellfish may have been found.

Anthropologist Curtis Marean of Arizona State University reported on what he found in a cave in a rocky bluff by the ocean at Pinnacle Point.

"Not only do we see them eating shellfish, but there is a whale barnacle, a special species of barnacle that only appears on the skin of a whale," Marean said. "So that's a clear piece of evidence that they brought in a chunk of whale skin and blubber and ate it at that site, so what we have is the earliest dated systematic use of marine resources."

Scientists say culture makes us "modern" humans, as opposed to our primitive predecessors. By many measures, the new find suggests that modern human behaviors began earlier than previously believed. Modern homo sapiens is believed to have evolved about 200,000 years ago. But it took a long time for a "human" culture to develop. Anthropologists are still trying to figure out when such "modern behavior" began.

Aside from the meal leavings, there was even better evidence of "modern thinking" in the cave, in the form of pieces of red ochre. The soft rock was used by early humans to make pigments for decoration. The ochre had markings on it that would have been made by grinding.

"The way that ochre is used is, they grind it into a powder and then they mix it with some kind of binder like egg yolk," Marean said. "And of course they use that as paint to paint their bodies, for example, or even to paint rock in a cave."

And there was one more thing: a collection of small blades made of stone. Researchers say those are the fine tools that probably would have been set in a piece of bone or wood, like teeth in a saw blade.

The stone blades and the shellfish collecting are examples of increasingly sophisticated behavior. And the discovery of the ochre falls into a special category.

"The smoking gun is really symbolic behavior," said Sally McBrearty, an archaeologist at the University of Connecticut.

"The manipulation of symbols really distinguishes people, at least this is what archaeologists believe, from other species."

Scientists have already found a couple of places in Africa where worked ochre and small-bladed tools date from even earlier times than the recent discovery. But writing in the journal Nature, Marean says the artifacts at Pinnacle Point suggest a people who were advancing on many fronts.

"When you put them together, they look like a package of adaptation that is rather advanced for this time," Marean said.

McBrearty says the Pinnacle Point artifacts help fill in a very patchy record of early human evolution, which may suggest that fairly early in our history, braininess was busting out all over.

"Homo sapiens in Africa were very widespread," McBrearty said. "They were operating in this kind of modern way consistently throughout Africa."

Discoveries like that made at Pinnacle Point are rare, especially along coastlines. Sea levels have risen several times over the past 200,000 years, and the oceans would have flooded many coastal cave dwellings.

Marean's cave site at Pinnacle Point is well above sea level and escaped that fate, leaving behind the cast-off shell of what may have been the first bold human to have eaten an oyster.

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