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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2004 Apr 20;101(16):5708-15. Epub 2004 Mar 8.

The Ysterfontein 1 Middle Stone Age site, South Africa, and early human exploitation of coastal resources.

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  • 1Program in Human Biology, Stanford University, Building 80, Inner Quad, Stanford, CA 94305, USA.


Human fossils and the genetics of extant human populations indicate that living people derive primarily from an African population that lived within the last 200,000 years. Yet it was only approximately 50,000 years ago that the descendants of this population spread to Eurasia, where they swamped or replaced the Neanderthals and other nonmodern Eurasians. Based on archaeological observations, the most plausible hypothesis for the delay is that Africans and Eurasians were behaviorally similar until 50,000 years ago, and it was only at this time that Africans developed a behavioral advantage. The archaeological findings come primarily from South Africa, where they suggest that the advantage involved much more effective use of coastal resources. Until now, the evidence has come mostly from deeply stratified caves on the south (Indian Ocean) coast. Here, we summarize results from recent excavations at Ysterfontein 1, a deeply stratified shelter in a contrasting environment on the west (Atlantic) coast. The Ysterfontein 1 samples of human food debris must be enlarged for a full comparison to samples from other relevant sites, but they already corroborate two inferences drawn from south coast sites: (i) coastal foragers before 50,000 years ago did not fish routinely, probably for lack of appropriate technology, and (ii) they collected tortoises and shellfish less intensively than later people, probably because their populations were smaller.

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