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

Niespolo, Elizabeth M. and Sharp, Warren D. and Avery, Graham and Dawson, Todd E. (2021) Early, intensive marine resource exploitation by Middle Stone Age humans at Ysterfontein 1 rockshelter, South Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 118 (16). Art. No. e2020042118. ISSN 0027-8424. PMCID PMC8077024. doi:10.1073/pnas.2020042118.

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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.

Item Type:Article
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URLURL TypeDescription Information
Niespolo, Elizabeth M.0000-0002-9537-3031
Sharp, Warren D.0000-0002-6340-8690
Avery, Graham0000-0003-3833-1959
Additional Information:© 2021 National Academy of Sciences. Published under the PNAS license. Edited by Marilyn L. Fogel, University of California, Riverside, CA, and approved February 26, 2021 (received for review September 24, 2020). We thank the Leakey Foundation and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation for support. This research is based in part on work supported by the NSF under Grant No. BCS-1727085 to W.D.S. and C.A. Tryon. We thank Richard Klein for his effort to recover and curate the materials studied here, for requesting sample export permits, and for constructive discussions of the results of this work. We thank Zenobia Jacobs for discussion of her OSL data. We thank South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRIS) and Heritage Western Cape for permits (SAHRIS CaseID 9905 and Permit ID 2380); Iziko Museums for curation of the YFT1 material; Luis Erick Aguirre Palafox for sample preparation assistance; Christina Polito and Brian Jones for help with ²³⁰Th/U analyses; and Stefania Mambelli and Wenbo Yang for directing stable isotope analyses. Data Availability: All study data are included in the article and/or supporting information. Author contributions: E.M.N. and W.D.S. designed research; E.M.N. and W.D.S. performed research; E.M.N. and W.D.S. contributed new reagents/analytic tools; G.A. excavated and procured samples; E.M.N., W.D.S., G.A., and T.E.D. analyzed data; and E.M.N., W.D.S., and G.A. wrote the paper. The authors declare no competing interest. This article is a PNAS Direct Submission. This article contains supporting information online at
Funding AgencyGrant Number
Leakey FoundationUNSPECIFIED
Ann and Gordon Getty FoundationUNSPECIFIED
Subject Keywords:geochronology; Middle Stone Age; Southern Africa; shell middens; stable isotopes
Issue or Number:16
PubMed Central ID:PMC8077024
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20210413-070045790
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Official Citation: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. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Apr 2021, 118 (16) e2020042118; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2020042118
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:108704
Deposited By: Tony Diaz
Deposited On:13 Apr 2021 23:27
Last Modified:21 Sep 2021 23:56

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