Early, intensive marine resource exploitation by Middle Stone Age humans at Ysterfontein 1 rockshelter, South Africa

Elizabeth M. Niespolo, Warren D. Sharp, Graham Avery, Todd E. Dawson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations

Abstract

Modern human behavioral innovations from the Middle Stone Age (MSA) include the earliest indicators of full coastal adaptation evidenced by shell middens, yet many MSA middens remain poorly dated. We apply 230Th/U burial dating to ostrich eggshells (OES) from Ysterfontein 1 (YFT1, Western Cape, South Africa), a stratified MSA shell midden. 230Th/U burial ages of YFT1 OES are relatively precise (median ± 2.7%), consistent with other age constraints, and preserve stratigraphic principles. Bayesian age-depth modeling indicates YFT1 was deposited between 119.9 to 113.1 thousand years ago (ka) (95% CI of model ages), and the entire 3.8 m thick midden may have accumulated within ∼2,300 y. Stable carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen isotopes of OES indicate that during occupation the local environment was dominated by C3 vegetation and was initially significantly wetter than at present but became drier and cooler with time. Integrating archaeological evidence with OES 230Th/U ages and stable isotopes shows the following: 1) YFT1 is the oldest shell midden known, providing minimum constraints on full coastal adaptation by ∼120 ka; 2) despite rapid sea-level drop and other climatic changes during occupation, relative shellfish proportions and sizes remain similar, suggesting adaptive foraging along a changing coastline; 3) the YFT1 lithic technocomplex is similar to other west coast assemblages but distinct from potentially synchronous industries along the southern African coast, suggesting human populations were fragmented between seasonal rainfall zones; and 4) accumulation rates (up to 1.8 m/ka) are much higher than previously observed for dated, stratified MSA middens, implying more intense site occupation akin to Later Stone Age middens.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2020042118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Volume118
Issue number16
DOIs
StatePublished - Apr 20 2021
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General

Keywords

  • Geochronology
  • Middle Stone Age
  • Shell middens
  • Southern Africa
  • Stable isotopes

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