Who Ate the First Oyster? Cave May Hold an Answer The first people to eat shellfish may have been found. Scientists digging in a cave in South Africa uncover evidence of shellfish dinners that date back 164,000 years. Anthropologists say it's evidence of some of the earliest known modern behavior.

Who Ate the First Oyster? Cave May Hold an Answer

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NPR's Christopher Joyce has that story.

CHRISTOPHER FARMER: 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.

CURTIS MAREAN: 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 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.

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.

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: Sally McBrearty is an archeologist at the University of Connecticut.

SALLY MCBREARTY: 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.

MAREAN: When you put them together, they look 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.

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

FARMER: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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