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Who Ate the First Oyster? Cave May Hold an Answer

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Who Ate the First Oyster? Cave May Hold an Answer

Who Ate the First Oyster? Cave May Hold an Answer

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The essayist Jonathan Swift once wrote: he was a bold man that first ate an oyster. Of course, Mr. Swift did not know who first pried open and ate an oyster, nor does anybody else. But it may be that the first people to eat shellfish have been found. Scientists digging in a cave in South Africa uncovered evidence of shellfish dinners that date back 164,000 years.

NPR's Christopher Joyce has that story.

CHRISTOPHER FARMER: Scientists reckoned modern Homo sapiens evolved about 200,000 years ago, but it took a long time for us to learn how to behave like, well, human beings.

Anthropologists are trying to figure out when such modern behavior began. Anthropologist Curtis Marean of Arizona State University says he's found evidence of it in a South African cave. The cave is in a rocky bluff by the ocean called Pinnacle Point. One hundred and sixty four thousand years ago, people there were collecting shellfish.

Dr. CURTIS MAREAN (Arizona State University): Not only do we see them eating shellfish but there is a whale barnacle. It's a special species of barnacle. It only occurs on the skin of a whale. So that's a clearer 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.

FARMER: But there was even better evidence of modern thinking in the cave - pieces of red ocher. It's a soft rock that early humans used to make pigments for decoration. The ocher had markings on it that would have been made by grinding.

Dr. MAREAN: The way that ocher is used is people grind it into a powder and then they mix it with some kind of binder like egg yolk, and then of course they use that as paint to paint their bodies, for example, or even rock walls in a cave.

FARMER: And there was one more thing - a collection of small blades made of stone. They are 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 ocher falls into a special category.

Sally McBrearty is an archeologist at the University of Connecticut.

Professor SALLY McBREARTY (Anthropology, University of Connecticut): The smoking gun is really symbolic behavior. The manipulation of symbols really distinguishes people - at least, this is what archeologists believe - from other species.

FARMER: Scientists have found a couple of places in Africa where there was worked ocher and small-bladed tools even earlier than this one. But writing in the journal Nature this week, Marean says the artifacts at Pinnacle Point suggest a people who were advancing on many fronts.

Dr. MAREAN: When you put them together, they looked like a package of adaptation that is rather advanced for this time.

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

Prof. McBREARTY: Homo sapiens in Africa were very widespread. They were operating in this kind of modern way consistently throughout Africa.

FARMER: Discoveries like these are rare, especially along the 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 castoff shell of what may have been the first bold human to have eaten an oyster.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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