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Department of Archaeology


A hunter-gatherer subsistence strategy centred on the predictable and defendable marine foods found along rocky coasts, particularly shellfish, is widely argued to have had profound implications for early human nutrition and social organisation. Systematic utilization of such resources, as opposed to the mobile and unpredictable resources of savanna environments, likely had important consequences for territoriality and cooperation and ultimately, the propensity of humans to form large, sedentary groups, with complex systems of social organisation (i.e. prosociality).

Notwithstanding the proposed advantages of a coastal adaptation, we do not yet know the extent to which early humans around the world relied upon coastal resources, nor how they scheduled their subsistence activities seasonally across the landscape. Unexpectedly, my research along the Indian Ocean south coast of South Africa demonstrated a marked shift in the annual timing of shellfish harvesting sometime between Middle Stone Age sites (~115,000 – 70,000 years ago), when it occurred year-round, and Later Stone Age sites (> ~12,000 years ago), when it occurred only in winter. This indicates a dramatic change in the organisation of economic activities and settlement practices between these two periods, yet to be fully understood.

Coastal Origins seeks to explore how African hunter-gatherers have interacted with the sea across the entirety of the long archaeological record in southern Africa. The project, spanning archaeology and climate science, will develop intertwined records of regional climate trends and hunter-gatherer shellfishing behaviours, using high-resolution geochemical analyses of archaeological mollusc shells. Coastal Origins offers a rare opportunity to, firstly, directly examine the connections between human cultural evolution and regional climate change, and secondly, observe how exploitation of coastal environments among early humans might have triggered the unique behaviours that are characteristic of modern humans.

Related publications

Loftus E, Lee-Thorp J, Leng M, Marean C, Sealy J. 2019. Seasonal scheduling of shellfish collection in the Middle and Later Stone Ages of southern Africa. Journal of Human Evolution. 128: 1-16.

Loftus E, Sealy J, Leng M, Lee-Thorp J. 2017. A late Quaternary record of seasonal sea surface temperatures off southern Africa. Quaternary Science Reviews. 171: 73-84.


Leverhulme Trust/Isaac Newton Trust

Project Tags

Environment, Landscapes and Settlement
Periods of interest: 
Other Prehistory
Geographical areas: 
Research Expertise / Fields of study: 
Biomolecular Archaeology
Archaeological Science
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