Event 49

165,000 years ago

Neanderthals at Gibraltar
A group of Neandertals eating shellfish at Gibraltar off the coast of Spain.
Credit: Illustration by John Sibbick, courtesy of John Sibbick Illustration. This illustration used with permission. All rights reserved.

Modern humans tend to have a passion for seafood, although eating them in the wrong season (when natural “red tides,” algal blooms rich in microorganisms can contaminate shellfish) can make them dangerous to eat because of toxins produced. The intensive exploitation of shellfish suggests a profound knowledge of the natural history of shellfish, and probably novel technologies for collecting them. Excavations at a site on the South African coast, the cave of Pinnacle Point, indicates that Middle Stone Age peoples were beginning to systematically exploit shellfish such as mussels, periwinkles, and whelks here, showing an intensive use of such sea resources by at least 165,000 years ago. These shellfish deposits were associated with typical Middle Stone Age points and scrapers, and are roughly the age of early anatomically modern humans or Homo sapiens (see the next event).

It does not seem that this first entrance into use of seafoods was necessarily aided by the use of boats or seafaring vessels of any kind, as it would have been possible to acquire such species by gathering these sea creatures in exposed intertidal areas during periods of low tide. Intensive world-wide exploitation of seafoods only becomes common within the past 100 years or so, with technological improvements in fishing methods and technologies combined with increasing pressure to feed the burgeoning populations of the industrial world.


Gorham Cave on Gibraltar
This is Gorham Cave on Gibraltar where some of the oldest evidence of Neandertal exploitation of marine resources is found.
Credit: Photo by Gibmetal77, courtesy of Wikimedia.



Archaeological deposits rich in shells, called middens, testify to this intensive seafood exploitation. Such midden deposits become much more common in later times on marine coasts.


The exploitation of seafoods is yet another hallmark of the modern human condition, and comes relatively late in the archaeological record. This suggests that by 165,000 years ago, human population understood the natural history of marine environments well enough to eat shellfish and presumably avoid
the consequences of eating them in the wrong season or condition.





This site gives a brief history of seafood in relation to early modern humans.
This is an Encyclopedia Brittanica website about the “History of Commercial Fishing.” https://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/127892/commercial-fishing/65560/History-of-commercial-fishing





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