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Paleoanthropologist writes 'untold story of our salvation'

Cover of the August 2010 issue of Scientific American
August 06, 2010

Inside caves near Mossel Bay, South Africa, a team of explorers have been piecing together an account of survival, ingenuity and endurance — of the species known as Homo sapiens. Team leader Curtis Marean, a paleoanthropologist with the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, writes of their discoveries at Pinnacle Point in the cover story of the August issue of Scientific American

In “When the Sea Saved Humanity,” Marean asks the reader to imagine that Homo sapiens once were an endangered species in Africa, struggling to survive cold, harsh, dry conditions. Yet, during this ancient climate crisis — at some point between 195,000 and 123,000 years ago — humans survived along the southern coast of Africa where shellfish and edible plants were plentiful. 

“With its combination of calorically dense, nutrient-rich protein from the shellfish and low-fiber, energy-laden carbs from the geophytes, the southern coast would have provided an ideal diet for early modern humans during glacial stage 6,” writes Marean in the cover story billed by Scientific American as the “untold story of our salvation.” 

“The discoveries Curtis and his team have made at Pinnacle Point are not only important from a scientific standpoint, but they also tell an incredible story about our origins,” said Kate Wong, the Scientific American editor who asked Marean to write the story. 

“What makes Curtis’ project so compelling is that it weaves together evidence from archaeology, paleoclimatology and genetics to answer the question of how our species eluded extinction during a climate crisis,” Wong said. 

Scientific American is marking its 165-year heritage as the country’s oldest continuously published magazine. “(It) has a long tradition of publishing articles written by leading scientists for a general audience, and in reading the technical papers on the Pinnacle Point finds and listening to talks by project members at professional meetings, I knew Curtis could write a terrific article synthesizing the team’s findings,” Wong said. 

The use of fire by early modern humans to engineer tools, as well as evidence that pigments, especially red ochre, were used in ways believed to be symbolic, are among the discoveries documented by Marean and the SACP4 team (the South African Coast Paleoclimate, Paleoenvironment, Paleoecology, Paleoanthropology Project, funded by the National Science Foundation and Hyde Family Foundation). 

To bring these discoveries to life, Scientific American augments the cover story from its print edition with an exciting multimedia presentation on the Web. The interactive feature includes vibrant photos of the excavation site in South Africa provided by team members, along with video footage and interviews with Marean and other SACP4 researchers. The multimedia feature is found at

Marean studies the prehistory of Africa, paleoclimates and paleoenvironments, and animal bones from archaeological sites. He is a professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.