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When the Sea Saved Humanity [Preview]

Shortly after Homo sapiens arose, harsh climate conditions nearly extinguished our species. Recent finds suggest that the smallpopulation that gave rise to all humans alive today survived by exploiting a unique combination of resourcesalong the southern coast of Africa

In Brief

  • At some point between 195,000 and 123,000 years ago, the population size of Homo sapiens plummeted, thanks to cold, dry climate conditions that left much of our ancestors' African homeland uninhabitable.
  • Everyone alive today is descended from a group of people from a single region who survived this catastrophe. The southern coast of Africa would have been one of the few spots where humans could survive during this climate crisis because it harbors an abundance of shellfish and edible plants.
  • Excavations of a series of sites in this region have recovered items left behind by what may have been that progenitor population.
  • The discoveries confirm the idea that advanced cognitive abilities evolved earlier than previously thought—and may have played a key role in the survival of the species during tough times.

With the global population of humans currently approaching seven billion, it is difficult to imagine that Homo sapiens was once an endangered species. Yet studies of the DNA of modern-day people indicate that, once upon a time, our ancestors did in fact undergo a dramatic population decline. Although scientists lack a precise timeline for the origin and near extinction of our species, we can surmise from the fossil record that our forebearers arose throughout Africa before the beginning of the glacial period. Back then the climate was mild and food was plentiful; life was good. But around 195,000 years ago, conditions began to deteriorate. The planet entered a long glacial stage known as Marine Isotope Stage 6 (MIS6) that lasted until roughly 123,000 years ago.

A detailed record of Africa's environmental conditions during glacial stage 6 does not exist, but based on more recent, better-known glacial stages, climatologists surmise that it was almost certainly cool and arid and that its deserts were probably significantly expanded relative to their modern extents. Much of the landmass would have been uninhabitable. While the planet was in the grip of this icy regime, the number of people plummeted perilously—from more than 10,000 breeding individuals to just hundreds. Estimates of exactly when this bottleneck occurred and how small the population became vary among genetic studies, but all of them indicate that everyone alive today is descended from a small population that lived in one region of Africa sometime during this global cooling phase.

I began my career as an archaeologist working in East Africa and studying the origin of modern humans. But my interests began to shift when I learned of the population bottleneck that geneticists had started talking about in the early 1990s. Humans today exhibit very low genetic diversity relative to many other species with much smaller population sizes and geographical ranges—a phenomenon that is best explained by the occurrence of a population crash in early H. sapiens. Where, I wondered, did our ancestors manage to survive during the climate catastrophe? Only a handful of regions could have had the natural resources to support groups of hunter-gatherers. Paleoanthropologists argue vociferously over which of these areas was the ideal spot. The southern coast of Africa, rich in shellfish and edible plants year-round, seemed to me as if it would have been a particularly good refuge in tough times. So, in 1991, I decided I would go there and look for sites with remains dating to glacial stage 6.

My search within that coastal area was not random. I had to find a shelter close enough to the ancient coastline to provide easy access to shellfish and elevated enough that its archaeological deposits would not have been washed away 123,000 years ago when the climate warmed and sea levels surged. In 1999 my South African colleague Peter Nilssen and I decided to investigate some caves he had spotted at a place called Pinnacle Point, a promontory near the town of Mossel Bay that juts into the Indian Ocean. Scrambling down the sheer cliff face, we came across a cave that looked particularly promising—one known simply as PP13B. Erosion of the sedimentary deposits located near the mouth of the cave had exposed clear layers of archaeological remains, including hearths and stone tools. Even better, a sand dune and a layer of stalagmite capped these remnants of human activity, suggesting that they were quite old. By all appearances, we had hit the jackpot. The following year, after a local ostrich farmer built us a 180-step wooden staircase to allow safer access to the site, we began to dig.

Since then, my team's excavations at PP13B and other nearby sites have recovered a remarkable record of the activities undertaken by the people who inhabited this area between approximately 164,000 and 35,000 years ago, hence during the bottleneck and after the population began to recover. The deposits in these caves, combined with analyses of the ancient environment there, have enabled us to piece together a plausible account of how the prehistoric residents of Pinnacle Point eked out a living during a grim climate crisis. The remains also debunk the abiding notion that cognitive modernity evolved long after anatomical modernity: evidence of behavioral sophistication abounds in even the oldest archaeological levels at PP13B. This advanced intellect no doubt contributed significantly to the survival of the species, enabling our forebearers to take advantage of the resources available on the coast.

While elsewhere on the continent populations of H. sapiens died out as cold and drought claimed the animals and plants they hunted and gathered, the lucky denizens of Pinnacle Point were feasting on the seafood and carbohydrate-rich plants that proliferated there despite the hostile climate. As glacial stage 6 cycled through its relatively warmer and colder phases, the seas rose and fell, and the ancient coastline advanced and retreated. But so long as people tracked the shore, they had access to an enviable bounty.

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