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Shell density as proxy for reconstructing prehistoric aquatic resource exploitation and transport, perspectives from southern Africa


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Aquatic resource use has gained enormous attention in recent years, particularly in terms of its role in human evolution. Significant strides are being made regarding the potential nutritional significance of aquatic foods for hominin diets, and explicit conceptual frameworks for understanding the evolutionary context of coastal adaptations are also being developed. Finding out when and where systematic use of aquatic resources took place and what constitutes a well-developed coastal adaptation requires a corpus of data that can offer insights into the organization of marine resource procurement. The earliest evidence for the exploitation of marine coastal habitats in the world is found in southern-most Africa (≤164 ka), where the most evident and abundant material expression of such foraging adaptation is revealed by marine mollusc shells found in mid to late Pleistocene archaeological sites. Hence, it becomes imperative to understand what can be meaningfully inferred from the variable quantities of such a significant component of early marine aquatic exploitation. This paper approaches the issue of aquatic resource use by investigating one of the most frequently employed quantitative measure for inferring such behaviour, namely shell density. Holocene assemblages from the South African west coast are used as a case study. It is found that shell densities can be misleading for inferring intensity of coastal resource use in the absence of palaeoshoreline reconstruction and when deposition rates are assumed to remain constant and when geomorphological and taphonomic contexts are unknown. Overall, deposition rates of marine shells is a better proxy for comparison between sites and through time, and thus for gaining insight into past marine coastal adaptations.
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Shell density as proxy for reconstructing prehistoric aquatic resource
exploitation, perspectives from southern Africa
Antonieta Jerardino
Research Professor, ICREA/Department of Experimental & Health Sciences, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, CaSEs Research Group, Ramon Trias Fargas 2527, 08005 Barcelona, Spain
Research Associate, Department of Anthropology & Archaeology, University of South Africa(UNISA), PO Box 392, Pretoria, South Africa
abstractarticle info
Article history:
Received 18 April 2015
Received in revised form 1 June 2015
Accepted 5 June 2015
Available online 13 June 2015
Shell midden
Shellsh collection
Site formation
Settlement pattern
Deposition rates
Shell taphonomy
Prey transport
Aquatic resource use has gained enormous attention in recent years, particularly in terms of its role in human
evolution. Signicant strides are being made regarding the potential nutritional signicance of aquatic foods
for hominin diets, and explicit conceptual frameworks for understanding the evolutionary context of coastal
adaptations are also being developed. Finding out when and where systematic use of aquatic resources took
place and what constitutes a well-developed coastal adaptation requires a corpus of data that can offer insights
into theorganization of marine resource procurement. Theearliest evidencefor the exploitation of marine coastal
habitats in the world is found in southern-most Africa (164 ka), where the mostevident and abundant material
expression of such foraging adaptation is revealed by marine mollusc shells found in mid to late Pleistocene
archaeological sites. Hence, it becomes imperative to understand what can be meaningfully inferred from the
variable quantities of such a signicant component of early marine aquatic exploitation. This paper approaches
the issue of aquatic resource use by investigating one of the most frequently employed quantitative measure
for inferring such behaviour, namely shell density. Holocene assemblages from the South African west coast
are used as a case study. It is found that shell densitiescan be misleading for inferring intensity of coastalresource
use in the absence of palaeoshorelinereconstruction and when deposition rates are assumed to remain constant
and when geomorphological and taphonomic contexts are unknown.Overall, deposition rates of marine shells is
a better proxy for comparison between sites and through time, and thus for gaining insight into past marine
coastal adaptations.
© 2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
1. Introduction
Aquatic resources have been viewed as marginal until not too long
ago, and the widespread appearance of shell middens along shorelines
postdating the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) was taken as indicative of
their late systematic use once human population levels had increased
substantially and apparently more productive terrestrial foods were
depleted (i.e., Osborn, 1977). But archaeologists know by now that
coastal resources have been exploited regularly since at least the Middle
and Late Pleistocene as evidenced by the presence of shell-bearing sites
in southern Africa (164 ka; Avery et al., 2008; Jerardino and Marean,
2010; Langejans et al., 2012; Henshilwood et al., 2014; Kyriacou et al.,
2015) and Europe (150 ka; Colonese et al., 2011; Cortés-Sánchez et al.,
2011). Hence, one of the main issues now revolves around the when
and where systematic exploitation of coastal resources took place. An-
swering these questions requires reecting upon denitions of what
systematic exploitation of coastal resources is and how to go about de-
tecting such an adaptation in the archaeological record. Methodological
approaches for inter-assemblage and site comparisons on quantitative
grounds thus need to be developed. An additional and important chal-
lenge to this endeavour in southern Africa, as elsewhere, is that much
of this record has been lost or is unavailable due to successive postgla-
cial sea level rise and ooding of the world's continental shelves
(Bailey and Flemming, 2008; Fisher et al., 2010). When this record has
survived thanks to steep bathymetry or other fortunate factors, its ma-
terial expression could be nonetheless seriously compromised or ob-
scured due to forager transport-mediated decisions. An increasing
distance between campsites and shoreline is likely to have affected
the choices of what and how much to bring back to campsites asethno-
graphic and archaeological studies show (e.g., Thackeray, 1988; Bird
and Bliege Bird, 1997; Marean and Cleghorn, 2003; Lupo, 2007;
Thomas, 2007; Dusseldorp and Langejans, 2013). This is an issue that
cannot be dismissed when studying past shellsh collecting strategies
in the context of changing coastline congurations as a result of sea
level change.
Systematic exploitation of coastal resources has been equated with
relatively large, localised and dense shell middens in association with
faunal remains, artefacts and sometimes site features (Parkington,
2003; Jerardino, 2010a; Will et al., 2015). But it is not immediately
apparent when shell dumps are dense and large enough, and/or suf-
ciently localised to reect systematic exploitation of coastal resources.
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Alternative views propose that the sporadic use of coastal resources is
not an indication of a coastal adaptation and that rather human life-
ways ought to be transformed signicantly (i.e., subsistence and settle-
ment patterns, technology) through the focussed use of these resources
and environments for a coastal adaptationto develop (Beaton, 1985;
Thompson and Worth, 2011; Marean, 2014). Hence, while some argue
in terms of a continuum of increasing reliance on coastal resources
and material expression of it, others propose a more operational view
where once a particular socio-economic and technological threshold is
reached resulting in the re-organization of adaptive systems around
coastal resources, a full coastal adaptation is thus involved (Beaton,
1985; Thompson and Worth, 2011; Marean, 2014). Looking for changes
in tool kits to answer these questions might not be productive as many
coastal foraging strategies require simple technology (particularly shell-
sh collection) that often does not preserve well, especially in very early
archaeological contexts (Waselkov, 1987). The comparative study of
shell and faunal records offers more protable avenues of research as
these records are substantially more abundant than artefacts and are
also reasonably well-preserved. Moreover, well-developed theoretical
frameworks and methodologies can be used to reconstruct procure-
ment and factors behind its variability in space and time (see Bird and
O'Connell, 2006; Lupo, 2007).
When comparing coastal mollusc and faunal records, archaeologists
working with the southern African Late Pleistocene and Holocene
records have looked at relative frequencies or ratios of species and
other proxy measures to evaluate possible marine emphasis in human
diet (e.g., Jerardino, 2010b, 2012; Clark and Kandel, 2013; Dusseldorp
and Langejans, 2013). However, no studies have yet attempted to
meaningfully compare sites on the actual intensity with which re-
sources were procured through time (quantities of preys procured in
time). Intense and systematic use of such resources could well mean
dependency on them and signal a coastal adaptation whichever
denition is followed. The most frequently used proxy-indicators for
identifying recurrent use or dependence on coastal resources (and sev-
eral other types of food and also artefacts) have been density measures
(weight or MNIs or NISP per unit volume) (i.e., Morwood, 1981;
Schweitzer and Wilson, 1982; Sullivan, 1984; Glassow and Wilcoxon,
1988; Thackeray, 1988; Bailey and Craighead, 2003; Langejans et al.,
2012; Faulkner, 2013; Marean, 2014; Will et al., 2015).
1.1. Shell densities and their meaning
A growing body of ethnographic data shows that not all collected
shellsh is transported back to living areas as an important part of
harvested shellsh are processed on the shore (de-shelled or shucked)
(e.g., Bird and Bliege Bird, 1997; Thomas, 2007). Based on these obser-
vations, one of the obvious archaeological predictions that have been
formulated is that reduced quantities of shells would reach campsites
located at greater foraging distances. Hence, densities of mollusc shells
at archaeological sites should decrease as distance between them and
coastlines increase. Pleistocene records and preliminary observations
among Holocene sites seem to broadly conrm these predictions
(Thackeray, 1988; Smith and Mütti, 2009; Jerardino and Marean,
2010; Dusseldorp and Langejans, 2013). However, reconstruction of
palaeo-shorelines and distances between them and sites have signi-
cant error margins, either because dating methods probing beyond
the capability of the radiocarbon method have inherently large error
margins (several thousands of years) and/or because bathymetric data
are either coarse or some form of averaging is included in order to ac-
count for foraging radii along several kilometres of coastline that
would have been accessible from a site (e.g., Fisher et al., 2010). Because
sea levels rose and fell very quickly in a matter of a few thousands of
years during interglacial and glacial stages, chronological inaccuracies
can thus translate into awed foraging distances and biased reconstruc-
tions of the past.
But density values are not without problems. The use of density
values often assumes unchanging matrix composition, constant deposi-
tion rates and adequate preservation of archaeological residues (but see
Parkington, 1988; Jerardino, 1995; Faulkner, 2013). Site matrix can be
generated by people, such as dense shell deposits, or can have a signi-
cant natural component such as aeolian sand and roof spalling among
others (e.g., Butzer, 1979; Hughes and Lampert, 1982). Hence, variabil-
ity in the densities of shells or fauna may have little to do with the
frequency with which prey was procured and brought back to the site,
but rather depend on the rate of deposition of the dominant component
of matrices which can change signicantly over time as revealed by
depth/age curves (i.e., Morwood, 1981; Sullivan, 1984; Stein et al.,
In order to further explain the problems around the use of shell
density, the following hypothetical cases are presented. For instance,
two shell-bearing sites (A and B) of very similar overall size and depth
of deposit show identical densities of marine shells and fauna, but one
(A) accumulated over a period of time one order of magnitude less
than the other (B). Clearly, the procurement of shellsh and other ma-
rine prey at site A was more intense than at site B, and that, consequent-
ly, marine resources were more systematically procured at site A while
this was not (or much less) the case at site B. An alternative case is that
of two other and similarly sized shell-matrix sites (C and D) with very
different shell densities: site C has densities of marine shells and fauna
one order of magnitude higher than site D, but accumulated over a pe-
riod of one or two orders of magnitude longer than site D. Concluding
that the exploitation of marine resources at site C was more intense
than at site D based on density observationsalone would be most likely
erroneous, becauseshells and fauna accumulated (procured) at site C at
a much slower pace than at site D. Either molluscs were procured with
similar intensity at both sites, and site D received a more substantial
non-anthropic input into its matrix (e.g., aeolian sand) than site C, or
molluscs might well have been utilised more regularly at site D. There-
fore, low-density shell deposits are not synonymous with a distant
shoreline and/or infrequent collection of shellsh.
Similarly, the geological context of sites can also potentially compli-
cate matters, as sites on or near coastal dunes are subject to more sand
input and/or periodical deation than caves and rock shelters, which
can signicantly alter original densities. Weight loss due to shell disso-
lution or burning, and contrasting densities among assemblages with
dissimilar taxonomic composition and/or shell robustness could also
compromise weight-density based comparisonsand minimum number
of individuals (MNIs) density comparisons could thus be more mean-
ingful. Shell densities between assemblages screened with very differ-
ent mesh sizes can also give spurious results, with smaller mesh sizes
retaining greater shell quantities and thus yielding higher densities
(see Jenkins, 2006). Most of these factors have yet to be studied for
their potential impact on observed shell density values.
Given the large error marginsassociated with age determinations of
Pleistocene sites and sometimes low geographic resolution of bathy-
metric data, it is crucial to test the above ethnographically-derived
predictions on shell quantities and transport-mediated decisions with
archaeological observations from shell middens that accumulated at a
time when sea levels were stable. Ideally, shell assemblages ought
to have been sampled with similar eld methods from sites located at
differentdistances from the coast, and studied using the same analytical
methods. The best set of data in southern Africa to do this is the mid
and late Holocene record from the West Coast of South Africa. A large
number of shell middens in the Lamberts Bay and Elands Bay coastal
areas have been excavated, extensively radiocarbon dated, their
stratigraphic sequences described, and many of their shell bulk samples
with associated volume information have been analysed and som etimes
fully published. Sea level history and other contextual palaeo-
environmental and geomorphological observations are also available
(Jerardino et al., 2013). Consequently, the objective of this paper is to
approach the issue of systematic use of aquatic resources through
638 A. Jerardino / Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 6 (2016) 637644
examining one of the most frequently employed quantitative measures
(proxy-evidence) among archaeologists for inferring such behaviour,
namely shell density. In so doing, the ethnographically-derived predic-
tions of shell density changes with distance from the coast will be tested
with Holocene examples from the South African West Coast. In order to
gain a better understanding of the observed variability, this record is
evaluated against several variables accounted or controlled for such as
screen mesh size, preservation, geomorphological context, taxonomic
composition, and deposition rates. The suitability of shell density and
shell deposition rates for deriving inferences about aquatic resource
procurement and coastal adaptation are then discussed.
2. Methods
The shell assemblages used in this study date to the last 4400 years
and thus after the nearby coastline reached its present position around
8000 years ago (Compton, 2001). These shell assemblages were
excavated following natural stratigraphy, and all were sieved through
a 1/8 in. (3.2 mm) mesh. This is also the case for samples from Pancho's
Kitchen Midden considered here, where although the large majority of
the excavated material was sieved through a 1/16 in. (1.5 mm) mesh
(Jerardino, 1997: 1036), some shell samples were screened with the
above indicated mesh size and thus comparable with the rest of shell
samples used in this study. Shell assemblages are from fourteen sites:
Borrow Pit Midden (BPM), Cape Deseada Midden (CDM), Deurspring
16 (DSP16), Grootrif G (GFG), Grootrif D (GFD), Mike Taylor's
Midden (MTM), Pancho's Kitchen Midden (PKM), Railway Midden
(RWM), Scorpion Shelter (SS), Soutpansklipheuwel 028, 051, and 086
(SPKH028, SPKH051, and SPKH086), Steenbokfontein Cave (SBF), and
Tortoise Cave (TC) (Fig. 1). Observations on the volumes associated
with excavated material, including shell bulk samples, were recorded
during excavations and often bucket note bookswere used for this
purpose. Bucket volume observations were later translated into cubic
metres (65 buckets = 1 m
). Taxonomic composition and quantica-
tion (MNIs and weight) were established with detailed laboratory
analyses (for details, see Jerardino, 1997). The measure of taxonomic
Fig. 1. Mapof the South African WestCoast and study area showing locationof sites and places mentioned in the text. CapeDeseada Midden (CDM), Borrow PitMidden (BPM), Deurspring
16 (DSP16),Grootrif G (GFG), Grootrif D (GFD), Mike Taylor's Midden (MTM),Pancho's Kitchen Midden (PKM), Railway Midden(RWM), Soutpansklipheuwel sites (SPKH028, SPKH051,
and SPKH086), Steenbokfontein Cave (SBF), Scorpion Shelter (SS), and Tortoise Cave (TC).
Aerial photographs and maps are from Google Earth and SRTM (v4.1), processed by CGIAR-CSI (
639A. Jerardino / Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 6 (2016) 637644
composition was expressed as the percentage (%) of one of the most
common mollusc species in local middens, namely, black mussels
(Choromytilus meridionalis). Geomorphological context of these
shell samples was noted as originating from among active or semi-
stabilised and vegetated dunes (00.35 km from the coast), and also
in terms of types of site, such as open shell midden, rock shelter or
cave site.
Stratigraphic proles (section drawings) and available radiocarbon
dates were studied for the purpose of calculating deposition rates. Ideal-
ly, this ought to consider the total volume of material for each period of
occupation under consideration and arrive to measures of total mass or
MNI of fauna (or any other category of archaeological debris for that
matter) per unit of time (see Jerardino, 1995). Because this is often
not possible due to limited information on site surface extent and
variability in middens' depths, a proxy measure of deposition rate is
used instead. Known average depth of sampled midden deposit per
unit of time (i.e., metres/1000 years) is thus employed in this study as
a broad surrogate version of deposition rate. This measure of deposition
rate might not be ideal as the observed thickness of a sampled deposit
may not represent the actual (and perhaps unknown) variability across
sites. Nevertheless, and in the absence of any other better alternative,
meaningful behavioural inferences could be safely made when changes
in deposition rates entail shifts of more than 50% and/or orders of
magnitude. Moreover, in order to gain greater accuracy in the calcula-
tions of deposition rates, these are established for different depositional
events within sites whenever possible.
For the purpose of testing the relationship of shell densities with
average distance from the coast and deposition rates, conventional
regression analyses were performed.
3. Results
Table 1 presents summary observations of shell density data, and
contextual variables, such as distances between sites and nearby coast-
line, type of site, average % black mussels in samples, and deposition
rates as well as observations for calculating the latter. With few excep-
tions, and according to laboratory notes, shell preservation is broadly
similar among sites despite different degrees of exposure to the natural
elements (Table 1). The exceptions are some of SBF samples, where
shells are burnt to different degrees as a result of frequentuse of hearths
(c. 25003000 BP) and also post-depositional burning after site aban-
donment (c. 35003700 BP) (Jerardino and Yates, 1996: 9). However,
past experimental observations with SBF shells showed that shell
weight loss due to intense burning (i.e., calcination) amounts to about
5% (see Jerardino and Yates, 1996: 10). Despite frequent shell burning,
slightly higher shell weight densities are registered for SBF older
samples that include calcined material (Table 1:SBF[3.58.3 ka])
when compared to SBF younger material (SBF [23ka]).
Figs. 2 and 3 show a general trend of diminishing mean shell densities
with increasing distance between archaeological sites and coastline. Shell
weight densities drop by half beyond 2 km and MNI densities do so be-
tween 2 and 3 km. Of note is the relatively high variability in mean shell
densities for sites within 0.5 km from the coast, as some of the lowest
and highest values are registered within this initial distance from foraging
localities. Variability in this regard is more evident with weight densities
(Fig. 2). The location of sites showing this higher spread of values corre-
sponds to open sites situated among currently semi-active coastal dunes
and immediately behind them. A linear regression model shows that
this trend is statistically signicant (p b0.05) but with a low predictive
power (weight densities: y = 23.382x + 237.18, r
= 0.142; MNI
densities: y = 1.786x + 17.484, r
= 0.243). Higher coefcients of
determination, and thus better predictive power, are established
when data for the rst 0.5 km are not included in the analyses (weight
densities: y = 54.491x + 366.88, r
= 0.477; MNI densities:
y=3.742x + 25.677, r
Table 1
Summary observations of shell density data (means and ranges) and associated observations,such as average distances between sites and coastline, type of site, average percentage (%) of black mussels in studied samples (in terms of weight and MNI),
time span during which samples' strata accumulated, average depth of samples' strata, deposition rates of samples' strata and source of these observations.
Site (period represented) Distance from
shore (km)
Type of site % black mussels
% black
mussels (MNI)
(range) MNI/m
Time span
depth (m)
rate (m/ka)
Source of data
DSP16 (22.4 ka) 0.17 Open 89.0 66.6 92.2111.7 101.9 936016,336.7 12,848.4 0.4 0.1 0.25 Jerardino (2010b), this study
DSP16 (36 ka) 0.17 Open 9.2 5.1 15.1130.2 55.9 3360.523,769.5 10,428.7 2.2 0.9 0.41 Jerardino (2010b), this study
BPM 0.19 Open 68.6 53.5 201.9474.8 292.3 8753.324,093.3 14,756.1 0.1 0.2 2.0 Jerardino et al. (2009), this study
MTM 0.21 Open 89.8 83.3 127.0517.6 324.2 5297.529,575.0 15,683.6 1.3 1.5 1.15 Jerardino and Yates (1997), this study
CDM 0.22 Open 82.0 69.7 123.9183.3 149.3 13,845.022,945.0 19,613.8 0.1 0.1 1.0 Jerardino (2012), this study
GFD 0.40 Open 47.1 23.1 60.9135.2 101.5 5525.020,995.0 12,764.4 0.15 0.5 3.3 Jerardino (2010b), this study
RWM 0.48 Open 96.9 98.0 179.5354. 266.8 10,205.014,235.0 12,220.0 0.1 0.2 1.5 Jerardino (2012), this study
GFG (01 ka) 0.60 Open 10.6 8.1 36.8777.1 341.9 5655.021,580.0 34,189.1 1.7 0.5 0.3 Jerardino (2007), this study
PKM (01 ka) 1.70 Rock shelter 76.2 52.8 455.9462.9 459.2 17,712.527,941.3 22,826.9 0.3 0.2 0.7 Jerardino (1997), this study
PKM (23.6 ka) 1.70 Rock shelter 98.3 86.6 324.8406.4 365.6 13,422.515,000.0 14,211.3 1.15 0.7 0.6 Jerardino (1997), this study
SBF (23 ka) 2.60 Cave 83.8 70.0 32.2429.5 161.3 2292.139,325.0 12,639.5 0.8 1.6 2.0 Jerardino (2010b), this study
SBF (3.58.3 ka) 2.60 Cave 59.4 40.8 60.1269.1 192.7 5616.020,952.1 19,727.4 4.8 1.8 0.37 Jerardino (2010b), this study
SPKH028 3.60 Open 37.4 25.7 14.728.9 21.2 2179.72769.2 2486.0 0.5 0.5 1.0 This study
SPKH051 3.60 Open 18.5 12.8 21.5217.0 124.9 7919.110,802.1 9416.6 0.1 0.7 4.0 This study
SPKH086 3.60 Open 48.5 36.1 35.759.3 44.1 4407.85605.4 5151.5 0.7 0.4 0.5 This study
TC (02 ka) 4.00 Rock shelter 82.9 67.9 60.3263.5 152.8 3770.015,560.6 8905.8 1.04 0.45 0.43 This study
TC (34.5 ka) 4.00 Rock shelter 80.7 52.1 127.6217.9 162.4 9425.028,470.0 15,042.6 0.7 0.8 0.9 This study
SS 7.40 Rock shelter 94.6 83.1 66.793.9 80.7 3052.27287.9 5555.6 3.0 0.8 0.27 Wahl (1994), this study
640 A. Jerardino / Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 6 (2016) 637644
Except for two or three cases (DSP16 [36 ka], GFD and GFG), black
mussel is the most frequent species (40%) among studied samples
(Table 1). Intra-site differences in shell densities are evident between
different periods at PKM, SBF and TC, and perhaps in connection with
taxonomic composition: relatively higher values are recorded in sam-
ples with medium percentages of black mussels (47.166.6%) whereas
lower shell densities correspond to samples with higher percentages
(66.798.3%) of this species (Table 1;Figs. 2 and 3). This is more evident
for MNI density observations (Fig. 3). Otherwise, % black mussels appear
to vary irrespective of shell densities, as high, medium andlow percent-
ages are registered for a range of shell densities (Figs. 2 and 3). In any
case, highest % black mussels are recorded at the most distant site of
all (Table 1;Fig. 1: Scorpion Shelter) situated at 7.4 km from the nearest
accessible rocky reefs.
Shell densities and deposition rates are not statistically related.
Linear regression analyses show very small coefcients of determina-
tion and slopes and are not signicantly different from zero (p N0.05)
(weight densities: y = 0.0008x + 1.291, r
= 0.008; MNI densities:
y=0.0236x + 1.475, r
= 0.026), indicating no statistical correlation
between shell densities and deposition rates. When data points for sites
within 0.5 km from the coast are excluded from regression analyses, the
relationship between these two variables is still very weak (weight
densities: y = 0.0016x + 1.306, r
= 0.039; MNI densities:
y=0.037x + 1.616, r
= 0.091).
4. Discussion
This study shows that, in general, shell densities diminish with
increasing distance between archaeological sites and the coastline. The
observations presented here are controlled for sea level change and
conrm data variability from Pleistocene coastal sites for which
shoreline position has been inferred from bathymetric and palaeo-
shoreline reconstructions (Jerardino and Marean, 2010; Dusseldorp
and Langejans, 2013). However, the geomorphological context of
shell-bearing sites can drive density values to some extent, particularly
at sites situated within 0.5 km from the coast. Substantial aeolian sand
input from dune systems into shell-bearing matrices can lower shell
densities considerably. Hence, initial interpretation of shell densities
for Pleistocene sites for which shoreline position is unknown needs to
be informed by their geomorphological contexts. Low shell densities
could be interpreted as indicative of signicant distance from the
coast where shellsh was originally collected, but this might not neces-
sarily be the case. It could well be that molluscs were frequently
harvested within 0.5 km from where shells were nally discarded but
much wind-blown sand from nearby dunes was included into the accu-
mulated shell-bearing deposits, a depositional process that translated
into low shell densities. Although this is evidently pertinent for open
shell-bearing sites that lie unprotected and subject to the action of the
natural elements, substantial input of wind-blown sands can equally
take place in rock shelters and cave sites close to past shorelines
(e.g., Blombos Cave and PP13B cave; Henshilwood et al., 2001; Marean
et al., 2010). Consequently, the geomorphological context of archaeo-
logical sites and reasonably accurate reconstruction of past shorelines
are crucial for interpreting shell densities as a function of distance
from the contemporary coast.
Decreasing shell densities means that people were transporting less
shells to more distant sites. Either less shellsh was taken further away
from the coast altogether, with part or much of the harvest consumed
close to the collection point, or a signicant portion of shellsh was
shucked prior to transport back to far-off campsites as shown by ethno-
graphic accounts (Bird and Bliege Bird, 1997; Thomas, 2007). Clearly,
not all consumed or transported shellsh (as esh or encased in their
shells) is reected in the quantities of shells found in more remote
shell middens. Consequently, caution must be exercised when inferring
diet/subsistence or settlement scenarios from inter-site comparisons
based on ratios where shell quantities play a role (e.g., mass vertebrate
taxa/mass of marine shells, or number of artefacts/mass of marine
shells).If sites (or occupational episodes within a site) weredifferential-
ly positioned with respect to their contemporary shoreline, ratios may
not be directly comparable and dietary or settlement inferences could
be unwarranted. For instance, the fact that a ratio of mammal bone to
marine shells for a stratigraphic component or site is smaller than that
from another stratum or site associated with a different shoreline loca-
tion does not mean that the collection and/or consumption of molluscs
was relatively more intense in the former relatively to the latter. Shell-
sh harvest intensity and/or consumption might well have been the
same in both instances, with the difference resting on the way similar
quantities of shellsh were processed, transported and consumed.
Hence, knowing the position of former coastlines is key. Comparing
the absolute values of shell-based ratios from sites differentially posi-
tioned from the coast would not be meaningful as these valuesare likely
to be biased by the differential transport of marine shells from the coast
to campsites. However, in the context of a relatively stable shoreline and
similar processing and transport choices, inter- and intra-site compari-
sons of trends through time in shell-based ratios ought to be meaning-
ful. Measuring up the trajectories in such ratios through time among
broadly contemporary sites (whether or not differentially positioned
with respect to the nearest coastline) can inform on parallel or diver-
gent dietary/subsistence trajectories between sites.
Middens with a diverse taxonomic composition are situated at
varying distances from the coast. Among this marked variability,
Shell Density (kg/ m3)
Average distance from coast (km)
Fig. 2. Plot of shell weight densities as a function of average distances (km) between the
location of sampled sites and the nearest rocky shore. Data point symbols vary according
to average % black mussels in shell samples (triangles: 033.3%, squares: 3466.6%, and
circles: 67100%).
Shell Density (MNI/m3) x 1000
Average distance from coast (km)
Fig. 3. Plot of shell MNI densities as a function of average distances (km) between the
location of sampled sites and the nearest rocky shore. Data point symbols vary according
to average % black mussels in shell samples (triangles: 033.3%, squares: 3466.6%, and
circles: 67100%).
641A. Jerardino / Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 6 (2016) 637644
assemblages with the lowest % of black mussel (limpet, and limpet plus
whelk dominated assemblages) are situated closest to the coast, while
those furthest away have some of the highest % black mussels
(e.g., Jerardino, 2007; Wahl, 1994). Although the scope and objective
of this paper is not to explore mollusc inter-site taxonomic variability
in much detail, sufce it to say that demographic and economic trends
that shaped settlement choices, and thus shellsh transport decisions,
explain much but not all of this variability (see Jerardino, 2010b,
2012). In this regard, differences in shell densities between different pe-
riods of time for PKM, SBF and TC deserve some comment. In each of
these instances, higher densities are associated with assemblages with
medium percentages of black mussels (i.e., Jerardino, 1997, 2010b;
Jerardino et al., 2009). These differences are most pronounced with
MNI density observations (Table 1;Fig. 3). Shifts in the mix of prey
and their intrinsically dissimilar shell structure and taphonomy (dis-
tinct three-dimensional shell geometry and specic susceptibilities
to compression) are likely to have played a part in these differences.
Moreover, the relatively larger disparity in PKM shell weight densities
between the pair of periods considered when compared to SBF and TC
equivalents is of note (Table 1;Fig. 2). Large and robust barnacle shells
are abundant in PKM's most recent (N0 AD) shell samples, a factor that
might well explain the highest recorded average shell weight density
among all.
Shell densities have intuitively been interpreted as reecting a
measure of predation intensity, dietary importance of shellsh in
forager diet and even as an indication of occupation intensity. Doing
so is probably well justied when deposition rates remain unchanged
within single sites or when these are comparable between sites. How-
ever, archaeologists have known for some time that archaeological
deposits of all ages often accumulate in bursts or pulses as a result of
variable and intense human occupation which dictate deposition rates
(e.g., Morwood, 1981; Parkington, 1988, 1990; Stein et al., 2003). More-
over, the concept of predation intensity (intensity of resource use) is in-
extricably linked to dietary returns (in whatever currency is measured)
procured in time (Bird and Bliege Bird, 1997; Lupo, 2007). Consequent-
ly, an archaeological measure for predation intensity ought to factor in
the time dimension, which quantication of shell densities clearly
does not. Hence, the use of shell densities (or of any category of fauna
for that matter) for reconstructing scenarios about shifting foraging
intensities is awed. Moreover, the empirical data presented here
show in any case that shell densities and deposition rates are not statis-
tically related whether sites within 0.5 m from the coast are considered
or not. Besides, the very weak association between these two variables
is negative and not positive as archaeologists have intuitively assumed
it to be.
The inferences gained from this study are probably applicable
elsewhere; however, it would be benecial to conduct similar studies
with data from other coastal areas in southern Africa and beyond.
Generalising on the basis of a particular pool of observations for
reconstructing the past in other geographic localities could conceal ad-
ditional local variability. A follow-up study on the variability of shell
densities along the South African south coast is thus desirable, particu-
larly in the context of a large suite of sampled sites available and differ-
ent taxonomic compositions in their shell assemblages (e.g., Klein,
1972; Binneman, 2004/2005; Henshilwood, 2008; Kyriacou, 2009;
Langejans et al., 2012).In this regard, it has been suggested that changes
in the ratios of shell weight to opercula weight for the large sea snail
Turbo sarmaticus is indicative of the removal of the shells (but not oper-
cula) at or near the collecting place for easier transport of the meat to
living sites away from the coast (Henshilwood, 2008; Henshilwood
et al., 2001). The prediction to be tested is that as overall shell densities
decrease with distance from the sea, the weight ratios of T. sarmaticus
shell to opercula must also decrease because these calcareous covers
would become relatively more common in locations more distant
from the coast. Obviously, differential preservation ofshells and opercu-
la as an explanation for higher incidences of the latter in some places
and not in others needs to be ascertained. Moreover, given the different
taxonomic composition and markedly wider range in prey size among
south coast (Indian Ocean) species when compared to their west coast
(Atlantic Ocean) counterpart, it is expected that some of the other
large south coast molluscs (i.e., Haliotis midae,Scutellastra tabularis)
may have been processed more actively and consistently than the
smaller ones. Consequently, their species-specic shell densities may
drop much faster (steeper slopes in plotted data) against distance
from the shore when compared to smaller prey. However, it is also rea-
sonable to expect a measure of variability in their densities as the large
shells of these taxa have been used as containers and as raw materials
for the manufacture of personal ornaments over many thousands of
years (Schweitzer and Wilson, 1982; Henshilwood et al., 2011).
Transporting these large shells back to campsites at varying distances
from the sea would have provided additional benets, over and above
of their nutritional value, to forager groups.
5. Conclusions
When and where Pleistocene systematic exploitation of marine
coastal resources developed are questions that are often situated within
palaeoenvironmental contexts where coastlines shifted signicantly as
a result of glacial and interglacial sea level changes. Some denitions
of systematic exploitation of aquatic resources stress the localised
concentration of mollusc shells as an indicator of it and judgement is
based often on measures such asshell densities. On the other hand, eth-
nographic accounts and preliminary archaeological evidence has shown
that quantities of shells, such as shell densities, vary notably between
campsites and distance to the coast. Other studies have also pointed
out that archaeological densities in general are compromised by various
important factors, such as matrix composition and deposition rates.
Consequently, shell densities needed a closer examination as to their
suitability for inferring past human behaviour. Quantitative approaches
based on shell densities for meaningful inter-assemblage and site com-
parisons have also required re-evaluation as these can be used for
exploring the development of aquatic resource use through time and
across geographic ranges.
This study shows that the use of shell density values can be mis-
leading for inferring intensities of aquatic resource use when rates of
deposition of shell-bearing sites are assumed to be constant and also
when the geomorphological context is not taken into account. The
dependence or not on aquatic resources (or any other for that matter)
is directly related to the intensity with which these are acquired. There-
fore, the time dimension must be factored in when establishing proxy
measures of systematic exploitation of such resources. Shell densities
obviously do not include time as a variable, but deposition rates do so.
Whether distances to contemporary shores are known or not, shell
deposition rates are better proxies for valid comparisons between
sites and through time than shell densities. Ideally, such deposition
rates ought to be quantied in terms of total amount of shells accumu-
lated in a site during a given period of time (see Jerardino, 1995), but
this is not always feasible. Average depth of deposit per unit of time is
presented here as an adequate substitute (see Stein et al., 2003). Differ-
ences in deposition rates by orders of magnitude ought to be meaning-
ful not only in terms of dependence on coastal resources but also for
accommodating relatively broad error margins in age determinations
of Pleistocene deposits and also possible inaccuracies in the assessment
of depth of deposits. Moreover, this study shows that shell densities and
deposition rates are not statistically related, and therefore shell densi-
ties cannot be used as a proxy measure for inferring mollusc foraging
intensity without further observations.
Taxonomic composition and diversity may also affect shell weight
densities and potentially also deposition rates as some species are
more robust than others and susceptible to compression to different
and unknown extents, complicating inter-assemblage comparisons
even further. This may be particularly important when comparing
642 A. Jerardino / Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 6 (2016) 637644
assemblages associated with different marine biogeographic zones. It is
thus important to learn more about shell taphonomy among assem-
blages with different species composition and tofollow-upwith studies
from the south coast of South Africa and beyond to improve our under-
standingon the originand evolution of aquatic resource exploitation on
a quantitative basis.
I am most grateful to Royden Yates, David Halkett, Tim Hart,
Anthony Manhire, Julia Lee-Thorp and a long list of friends and students
for their help during eld work at several of the sites reported here and
discussion of results. Funding of various excavations and the analyses of
samples was provided by grants from the University of Cape Town, the
Centre for Science Development (South Africa), Wenner-Gren (Gr.
5699, Chicago, Illinois) and the Swan Fund (Oxford). Thanks are extend-
ed to Richard Klein and Teresa Steele for stimulating email exchanges
around the topic here addressed and to two anonymous reviewers for
their comments and suggestions. Francesc Conesa kindly compiled
Fig. 1. This contribution would not have been possible without the
archaeo-malacology groundwork set forth in the study area by John
Parkington, Liora Horwitz, Royden Yates, and the late Bill Buchanan. I
am also very grateful to my friends Fiona Archer, René Navarro and
Anette Bestwick for their great and unconditional generosity that has
allowed several data-gathering visits from Barcelona to Cape Town.
CaSEs is an Emergent Grup de Recerca (SGR-1417) supported by the
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... Because shell densities are inversely related to average distances between campsites and the nearest shoreline (Jerardino, 2016b), the large majority of shell-bearing sites with highest shell densities are situated within a 3.0 km radius from the coast. Lowest shell densities are recorded at a distance of 7.4 km (one-way) to the nearest intertidal rocks, suggesting that occasional foraging trips from campsites could at times involve one-way walks of up to 8 km. ...
... A few rare cases exceeding 10 km have also been recorded elsewhere on the West Coast of South Africa and Europe (Bailey and Craighead, 2003;Jerardino, 2003). Ethnobiological studies show also that more often than not, a proportion of harvested shellfish is field processed to lighten weight back to campsites, and that trips longer than 10 km would likely have involved field processing of all harvested shellfish (shucked) (Bird et al., 2002;Jerardino, 2016b). The meat would have been eaten on location or dried before transporting it to residential sites. ...
... Since shell densities in archaeological sites are directly, and on the whole, inversely related to distances between coastline and campsites (Jerardino, 2016b), it appears that with the aid of subbottom profiling and sea level modelling, shell densities track shoreline distances, and thus help reconstruct past shoreline configurations by extension (Thackeray, 1988;Fisher et al., 2010;Jerardino and Marean, 2010). This is clearly exemplified by D. serra dominated deposits in the Eastern area dated to 115e90 ka, where the highest shell densities for the entire PP13B sequence (5.0 kg/ m 3 ) are recorded at a time when sea levels would have been nearest to the present mark. ...
Intertidal zones on shorelines are geologically complex features of the coastal plain, shaped by heterogeneous substrate lithologies. Palaeocoastlines have been heavily modified by sea-level change, ocean currents, wind, waves and swell. Rocks and sediments along intertidal zones create rich habitats for biogenic forms including shellfish, which are highly sensitive to subtle variations in underlying lithology. Here, we assess Pleistocene shoreline migrations on the south coast of South Africa in relation to fluctuating sea-levels and changes in sediment supply. The study area extends from Still Bay to Mossel Bay, South Africa, with a particular focus on Pinnacle Point. Our goal is to better understand the changes to the intertidal zone along these palaeocoastlines and how this may have affected marine resources available to early humans. We interpret marine geological records at select time slices along sub-bottom profiled transects that run perpendicular to the coast. We describe the character of specific shorelines to establish expectations of coastline character which we then compare to archaeological records at Pinnacle Point. We base our interpretations on (1) significant events in Pleistocene glacio-eustatic and depositional records, such as widespread deposition of coastal sand dunes at ∼90, ∼74 and ∼50 ka [MIS 5e–MIS 4], and (2) empirical evidence from high-resolution records of shellfish assemblages at the archaeological sites of PP13B and PP5-6. We demonstrate a prevalence of dissipative beaches and mixed coasts on Pleistocene sea-level lowstands on the coast of the Palaeo-Agulhas Plain. This differs significantly from the modern coastline with its significance of rocky shorelines.
... Comparison between stratigraphic units should, however, be undertaken on the basis of deposition rates as densities between strata can vary for reasons other than settlement patterns, such as geomorphological context and other factors behind changes in the main matrix component (Jerardino 1995b(Jerardino , 2016. The geomorphological context (beach foredunes) was apparently not altered during the entire DSP16 occupation. ...
... In general, the percentage of black mussels at SBF is higher than those of contemporary DSP16 levels (Tables 6 & 7). Nevertheless, transport decisions favouring relatively more black mussels over limpets and whelks for consumption at sites removed from the coast, such as SBF, may explain this difference (Parkington et al. 1988;Jerardino 2016). A more detailed discussion on these differences is, however, beyond the scope of this paper, but see Jerardino (2016). ...
... Nevertheless, transport decisions favouring relatively more black mussels over limpets and whelks for consumption at sites removed from the coast, such as SBF, may explain this difference (Parkington et al. 1988;Jerardino 2016). A more detailed discussion on these differences is, however, beyond the scope of this paper, but see Jerardino (2016). ...
This paper presents the first detailed report on mid-Holocene faunal and artefactual observations from Deurspring 16 (DSP16) shell midden situated on the central West Coast of South Africa. DSP16 also yielded late Holocene material. Until recently, the mid-Holocene record eschewed most but not all research efforts. Likewise, systematic studies on the abundant late-Holocene record of this region suggest a trajectory of hunter-gatherer resource intensification and limited group mobility. DSP16 observations show that mid-Holocene group mobility involved long distances and that visits were either brief and/or undertaken by small groups. People procured large and small terrestrial prey, and shellfish were a dietary complement. Stone tool kits were manufactured on mostly exotic silcrete, with scrapers and backed pieces being dominant among formal tools. Subsequent late-Holocene patterns shifted radically: site visits were probably longer, mobility became increasingly circumscribed to the coast and Sandveld, and subsistence relied heavily on marine resources while small terrestrial prey was also procured. Locally-available quartz and quartzite was favoured over silcrete in stone tool production, and backed pieces were gradually dropped in favour of scrapers among formal tools. These results and those from other sites show that i) the central West Coast was not as uninhabited during the mid-Holocene as previously thought, and that ii) a late-Holocene resource intensification model adequately accounts for the settlement and subsistence trends in this region.
... But the relatively small size of Pancho's Kitchen Midden excavation and small number of unfinished OES beads and finished beads and pendants are not sufficiently adequate to estimate their rates of accumulation with confidence. Instead, density values (n/m 3 ) for these artifacts are used as a proxy measures for residential permanence, although it has to be born in mind that density values in general can vary due to changes in the rates of shell discard rather than the rate at which these quantified items were incorporated into the deposit (see Jerardino 1995Jerardino , 2016. ...
... Moreover, the rise in densities of unfinished OES beads and finished beads and pendants in Layers 5 and 6 happens despite a concomitant rise in shell densities, meaning that the increase in artifact densities is not the result of dwindling matrix content (shell). Artifact densities and the interplay of their behavioral causes is a matter beyond the concern of this chapter (see Jerardino 1995Jerardino , 2016. Although trends in shell fragmentation and deposition rates are inversely related, this correlation is not significant according to statistical tests. ...
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Zooarchaeologists normally screen shell remains through stacked meshes of different sizes to assess the degree of fragmentation of this material. This kind of quantification serves the purpose of characterizing stratigraphic sequences and reconstructing intra-site settlement patterns and site formation processes. However, screening can be time consuming, add an additional step to the processing of faunal remains, and pose complexities when storing shell samples. Moreover, it is not always clear whether the interpretations of changes in shell fragmentation in terms of behavioral patterns are well justified without contrasting them against independent evidence.
... For instance, large barnacles that grow on the exterior of mussel shells as well as some low-intertidal and subtidal limpets were largely removed from their hosts (Jerardino 2014). Also, and based on shell density records from the study area and elsewhere, it appears that people transported fewer shells to more distant sites (Thackeray 1988;Langejans et al. 2012;Jerardino 2016). Either fewer shellfish were transported with increasing distance from the coast, with none or part of the harvest consumed close to the collection point, or a significant portion of shellfish was de-shelled (or shucked) prior to transport to campsites (see Bird & Bliege Bird 1997;Thomas 2007). ...
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Spring Cave is situated just below the Baboon Point escarpment in Elands Bay and is one of only a handful of central west coast sites with deposits dating to the Medieval Warm Anomaly (MWA, c. 1300-650 cal BP). This was a climatological period of global significance that brought hot and dry conditions to much of the South African west coast, an ecologically stressed period affecting people, animals and plants alike. Although Spring Cave also dates to before and after the MWA, a large amount of its deposits date to this period. Earlier research on the central west coast has shown that most MWA-dated sites are situated at high elevations and near the coast, and that such placement in the landscape allowed monitoring of the movement of game, predators, and groups of people with or without livestock. High mobility, seeking safety and shelter at higher elevations, and a close watch on the landscape were part of general adaptive strategies, but people at Spring Cave may have added repeated ritual slaughter of small carnivores to the range of coping mechanisms. Doing so, according to ethno-historical records among herding groups, would have brought good luck and well-being. When considering Spring Cave's entire sequence, broad late Holocene regional patterns are also confirmed: i) higher frequencies of exotic lithic raw materials before 3000 cal BP; and ii) greater emphasis on gathering limpets after 2000 BP, while mussels dominate assemblages before then. Moreover, metrical data on limpets, mussels and Cape rock lobster suggest that these species were not processed before their transport back to the cave, an observation at variance with barnacles and fish.
... En los neandertales también se pueden encontrar muchos ejemplos, desde al menos hace 250 mil años (Cantillo et al., 2010;, ya fuera como alimento (Stiner, 1994;Stringer et al., 2008;Zilhão y Villaverde 2008;Colonese et al., 2011;Cortés-Sánchez et al., 2011;Douka y Higham, 2012), actividades simbólicas (Zilhão et al., 2010) o la producción de herramientas (Dantoni, 1980;Vitagliano, 1984;Stiner, 1993;Romagnoli et al., 2016). En Homo sapiens sapiens, los moluscos han estado presentes desde casi los mismos orígenes de nuestra especie, o al menos desde hace 160 mil años (Marean et al., 2007;Jerardino y Marean, 2010;Jerardino, 2016), así como durante los diferentes periodos de desarrollo cultural durante la prehistoria y la historia en prácticamente los cinco continentes (Erlandson, 2001;Erlandson y Fitzpatrick, 2006). ...
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La arqueomalacología es una disciplina, relativamente reciente, que se basa en el estudio de los moluscos en contextos arqueológicos. En este primer trabajo de la presente monografía especial se intenta presentar una visión general de sus orígenes, en el siglo XIX, y cómo ha ido evolucionando e incorporando técnicas y avances provenientes tanto de la arqueología como de la paleontología, zoología o ecología, para crear un corpus propio, permitiendo obtener una visión más completa de las sociedades pasadas y su relación con su entorno natural gracias al estudio de los moluscos y en menor medida de otros invertebrados marinos (equinodermos, crustáceos y antozoos, principalmente). Desde 2010 se organizan regularmente las Reuniones Científicas de Arqueomalacología de la Península Ibérica (RCAPI) y a finales de 2019 se celebró la sexta edición en Mallorca. En este libro se presentan 16 trabajos, los cuales muestran los avances y tendencias actuales de la arqueomalacología en la Península Ibérica, Mediterráneo e Islas Canarias. -- Archaeomalacology is a relatively recent discipline that is based on the study of molluscs in archaeological contexts. In this first work of the present special monography it tries to present an overview of its origins, in the 19th century, and how it has evolved and incorporated techniques and advances from archeology as well as paleontology, zoology or ecology, to create its own corpus, allowing to obtain a more complete vision of past societies and their relationship with their natural environment thanks to the study of mollusks and to a lesser extent other marine invertebrates (echinoderms, crustaceans and anthozoans, mainly). Since 2010, the Scientific Meetings of Archaeomalacology of the Iberian Peninsula (RCAPI) have been organized regularly and at the end of 2019 the sixth edition was held in Mallorca. In this book, 16 works are presented, which show the current advances and tendencies of archaeomalacology in the Iberian Peninsula, the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands.
... Processing and transport decisions have already been inferred and quantified before for many sites in the Elands Bay and Lamberts Bay areas (Jerardino, 1997, Jerardino, 2014aJerardino, 2016a). Processing and transport were evidently involved in all sampled sites situated beyond 2.5 km from the coast, not just megamiddens. ...
Intense coastal resource exploitation is an important topic, and large South African west coast shell middens (megamiddens) are an example of it. Parkington et al. (2020) attempt to explain them, but they fail dismally in doing so by using biased observations and championing field processing and transport as single explanations. Here, their flawed proposal is contrasted with much ignored published data, revealing a unique and dynamic interplay of factors resulting from settlement and foraging decisions.
... Proxy measures for occupation intensity were explored through establishing average depth of deposits, charcoal abundances, and the quantification of particular items of material culture. Deposition rates (depth of deposit accumulated in time) are suitable indicators of occupation intensity, notwithstanding some shortcomings (Jerardino 2016b). High values can be indicative of frequent visits, and/or longer stays, and/ or larger groups. ...
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The Elands Bay and Lamberts Bay areas have received dedicated attention over the last 40 years. Broad chronological patterns have been established and tested by numerous research projects in the last two decades. Nevertheless, this large corpus of data also reveals that despite much research effort, some periods are better understood than others. For instance, only partial information is available for the Mid-Holocene (8700-4800 cal BP), and astonishingly little is known about the centuries between 1300 and 600 cal BP. Both of these periods were dominated by warm and dry atmospheric conditions, and are known as the Holocene Altithermal and the Medieval Warm Epoch, respectively. But luckily, two of three sites at Soutpansklipheuwel (SPKH) outcrop near Lamberts Bay are now known to have substantial volumes of material dating to the latter and elusive period. This paper reports on recent test excavations at all three sites. The results suggest that outcrops and other high-placed locations were targeted for settlement during this period, probably because of competition resulting directly or indirectly from water shortages and xeric conditions. Abundant supply of fuel from a range of woody shrubs and rainwater accumulating in rock pools made SPKH outcrop especially attractive. Shellfish consumption appears to have been of great importance to groups settling at SPKH, with species diversity largely dictated by the biogeographical distribution of taxa in nearby rocky shores. Exotic lithic raw materials were never dominant, but good effort was made to procure them from distant places, thus influencing mobility. Compared to local sites, backed pieces are unusually common at SPKH and a greater variety of formal tools were used and discarded at this locality. The emerging signs of variability seem to suggest that this hitherto little-known period known as the Medieval Warm Epoch was more eventful than previously suspected.
World shorelines were reconfigured after the Last Glacial Maximum due to rising sea levels. A few South African sites are known to document human adaptive responses on this trajectory, and Elands Bay Cave (EBC) is one among them. EBC faunal and cultural assemblages have been studied, but marine invertebrate remains have not received due attention until now. Successive stages of socio-economic and settlement changes moved in tandem with an approaching coastline. EBC chrono-stratigraphy shows an increasing use of the cave and a domestic character since ~13.2 cal BP when coastal foraging began. Terrestrial resources were common initially, but marine invertebrates were increasingly incorporated into peoples’ diet, with the heaviest predation and smallest limpet sizes by ~11.5 cal BP. Black mussels were dominant almost throughout and, because of unfavourable ecological conditions affecting their growth, sizes were small. Subsistence was reformulated immediately thereafter, around 10.9 cal BP, to include large quantities of marine and terrestrial vertebrates in order to satisfy the demands posed by frequent and long visits at EBC. Some visits seem to have had a ritual component associated with them, probably related to wide and active social networks. This trend ended ~9.0 cal BP when people stopped using EBC.
Humans began to exploit aquatic resources routinely since the late Middle Pleistocene (c. 162 ka), as evidenced by PP13B Cave in the southern Cape of South Africa. Hard bottom or rocky shore species were among the first to be collected, and although they dominate Pleistocene and Holocene archaeomalacological assemblages locally, the soft-bottom Donax serra clam began to be collected systematically near PP13B by 110 ka. Since then, D. serra appears intermittently in early and Holocene middens. Earlier studies on PP13B D. serra assemblages dated to 110–91 ka concluded that initial collection of D. serra ~ 110 ka was unselective in terms of shell size and was undertaken along the entire tidal gradient. In later visits ~ 91 ka, foragers narrowed their collection to the mid-intertidal where most larger clams live, thus increasing the efficiency of D. serra procurement. In this paper, further metrical data from other Pleistocene and late Holocene assemblages is presented in order to test these conclusions. Pleistocene data from mainly the Klasies River main site also reflect small sizes as in contemporary levels from PP13B; however, it is not possible to generalise that the increase in foraging efficiency observed in PP13B also applies to post 90 ka contexts overall due to a lack of Pleistocene samples dating to this latter period. However, it is clear that foraging efficiency was comparatively higher in the Plettenberg Bay and Mossel Bay areas since the early Holocene. Variability among Holocene D. serra assemblages appear to be explained also in terms of foraging ranges. Settlement patterns, group size and/or its composition may be factors behind the generally intermittent presence of D. serra in the southern Cape middens.
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The largest of all shell middens in South Africa are found on theWest Coast between the Olifants River mouth and Vredenburg Peninsula. These ‘megamiddens’ appear to be the endphase of profound and earlier changes in subsistence and settlement among late Holocene coastal hunter-gatherers. These enormous sites have been minimally sampled, and some of the largest are located in the Lamberts Bay area. Here we report mainly on the Kreefbaai C (KFB C) megamidden and other nearby sites. Considering the visibly vast quantities of marine shells and estimated mass of vertebrate fauna, this site formed as a result of a focused, intense and sustained collecting effort on black mussels for immediate consumption, and also mass processing and drying. Domestic activities contributed to this record to a lesser but important extent. Shellfish foraging strategies changed through time as a result of foraging efficiency considerations, possible depletion of black mussel beds, and/or nearshore palaeo-environmental changes. KFB C is one meaningful piece of a puzzle where settlement, demographic changes and reconfigurations in subsistence choice combine to present a unique period in the precolonial history of South Africa. The conservation of KFB C and other West Coast megamiddens needs the proactive and joint efforts of academics and heritage practitioners.
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During 1992/3 nine Later Stone Age (LSA) coastal midden sites ranging in age from 6960 B.P. to 290 B.P., and representing 28 depositional units were excavated in the Blombosfontein Nature Reserve and in the directly adjacent Blombos Estates, situated 20 km to the west of Still Bay, southern Cape, South Africa. This research formed the core of the authors doctoral thesis ‘Holocene archaeology of the coastal Garcia State Forest, southern Cape, South Africa’ completed at Cambridge University in 1995 (Henshilwood 1995). This monograph is based on the results derived from this research. Additional data derived from the 1997 – 1999 excavations of the Later Stone Age levels at Blombos Cave (BBC) has been added into the text and a brief review of the results from the 1997 – 2005 excavations of the Middle Stone Age (MSA) levels is included.
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THIS PAPER DESCRIBES SOME EVIDENCE OF shellfish gathering from what are arguably among the earliest shell middens in human history. What makes this evidence interesting for scientists involved in explaining human evolutionary events is the fact that it may register a key moment in the emergence of our species. I describe the sites, list some of the archaeological remains, and speculate on the relationship between the evidence for systematic shellfish gathering and the appearance of hominid fossils that almost all palaeoanthropologists would call 'modern'. I have this word in inverted commas because I believe all our definitions of 'modern behaviour', and perhaps even 'modern humans', are self-serving and in need of substantial unpacking. Cynically, modern behaviour is defined as likely to be reflected in the kinds of archaeological remains (worked bone, some or other complex subsistence activity, marked ochre, burial) that we have in hand. It may be better to ask a less loaded question such as what is the history of one of these component behaviours, such as inter-tidal marine food acquisition. The gathering of sessile molluscs is, at first sight, hardly complex, but its nutritional advantages and correlates in the archaeological record might be of considerable significance.
Australia, with its wide continental shelves, is a difficult region for the study of coastal adaptations over the Transition, as so much land was drowned by the post-glacial sea-level rise. What can be discerned has a place in a larger and longer-term pattern of adaptation. -Author