The origins and significance of coastal resource use in Africa and Western Eurasia

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150 Scopus citations


The systematic exploitation of marine foods by terrestrial mammals lacking aquatic morphologies is rare. Widespread ethnographic and archaeological evidence from many areas of the world shows that modern humans living on coastlines often ratchet up the use of marine foods and develop social and technological characteristics unusual to hunter-gatherers and more consistent with small scale food producing societies. Consistent use of marine resources often is associated with reduced mobility, larger group size, population packing, smaller territories, complex technologies, increased economic and social differentiation, and more intense and wide-ranging gifting and exchange. The commitment to temporally and spatially predictable and dense coastal foods stimulates investment in boundary defense resulting in inter-group conflict as predicted by theory and documented by ethnography. Inter-group conflict provides an ideal context for the proliferation of intra-group cooperative behaviors beneficial to the group but not to the altruist (Bowles, 2009). The origins of this coastal adaptation marks a transformative point for the hominin lineage in Africa since all previous adaptive systems were likely characterized by highly mobile, low-density, egalitarian populations with large territories and little boundary defense. It is important to separate occasional uses of marine foods, present among several primate species, from systematic and committed coastal adaptations. This paper provides a critical review of where and when systematic use of coastal resources and coastal adaptations appeared in the Old World by a comparison of the records from Africa and Europe. It is found that during the Middle Stone Age in South Africa there is evidence that true coastal adaptations developed while there is, so far, a lack of evidence for even the lowest levels of systematic coastal resource use by Neanderthals in Europe. Differences in preservation, sample size, and productivity between these regions do not explain the pattern.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)17-40
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of human evolution
StatePublished - Dec 1 2014


  • Coastal adaptation
  • Marine foods
  • Middle paleolithic
  • Middle stone age
  • Modern human origins
  • Shell midden

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology


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