(Reuters) - For early humans, one of the first displays of modern behaviour was a sort of beach party and clam bake along the coast of South Africa.
Artefacts found in a cave on coastal cliffs overlooking the Indian Ocean showed that these people 164,000 years ago cooked mussels and other shellfish, used red pigment perhaps as body paint and made small stone blades that could be used at the tip of a spear -- all far earlier than previously thought.
An international team of scientists, writing in the journal Nature on Wednesday, described the earliest evidence for humans living in a coastal habitat and exploiting the resources of the sea.
"We do not have human fossils from this site, but they were very likely modern humans indigenous to South Africa," Arizona State University anthropologist Curtis Marean , who led the study, said by e-mail, noting our species Homo sapiens likely emerged between 200,000 and 150,000 years ago in Africa.
The world was in a glacial period from 195,000 to 125,000 years ago, with much of Africa in cold and dry conditions that may have prompted early humans to find new food sources and expand from inland to coastal habitats, the researchers said.
Marean said that the findings support the idea that on the far southern shore of Africa a small population of modern humans endured this glacial period by expanding their diet to include shellfish, harnessing new technologies, and by using symbolism in their social relations.
It may be that this was "the progenitor population" for all modern people, Marean said. Habitation of coastlines is of great interest to scientists wondering about the later spread of modern humans out of Africa.