A report in today's Nature (Oct. 18, summarized here and reported here in the Washington Post) describes a 164,000 year old site found in South Africa. At that time Africa is reported to have been mostly desert, so the site—a cave near the coast—and evidence of shellfish consumption in the cave suggests that early Homo sapiens found a new source of food in the water.
From the standpoint of this blog, the key discovery is the presence of red ochre, suggesting symbolic and ritualistic decorations at a much earlier date than has been previously known. Archaeologists have argued that, because the use of symbols is so 'recent,' there must have been a "big bang" in which language and other symbolic interactions were invented. It has been common to read passing mention in the popular press of language being about 70 thousand years old, and scholars often noted that the evidence of symbolic activity was only half as old as the Homo sapiens species, suggesting something dramatic had happened midway through our species' career. This blog has always been skeptical of that theory, and the new finding near Pinnacle Point, South Africa adds to the cause for doubt. Along with the shellfish consumption, the Nature report pushes evidence of symbol usage much closer to the birth of the species.