Nutrition, modernity and the archaeological record: coastal resources and nutrition among Middle Stone Age hunter-gatherers on the Western Cape coast of South Africa.
In this paper, we assess the nutritional value of some marine and terrestrial food resources available to Middle Stone Age hunter-gatherers in the Western Cape of South Africa with respect to an important macronutrient (protein) and an essential micronutrient (iron) and introduce a framework for assessing the relative utility of marine and terrestrial resources. Whilst the ability to extract nutrients from the environment has always been a lynchpin in archaeologists' reconstructions of human evolution, a recent paradigm shift has recognized the role of marine resources in encephalization. Nutritional research indicates that marine ecosystems are the best source for long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids essential for proper brain development, and excavations at securely dated archaeological sites in South Africa provide firm evidence for the exploitation of marine resources by Middle Stone Age hunter-gatherers from at least Marine Isotope Stage 5 (130 ka), and possibly even earlier. Because marine molluscs are abundant, predictably located and easily harvested, they would have been readily available to all members of the community, in contrast to terrestrial resources. The improving archaeological record gives important clues to resource choice, but many more nutritional observations are needed to determine the extent to which marine resources could have met the nutrient requirements of prehistoric people. Our observations indicate that marine and terrestrial fauna are both excellent sources of protein, and that marine molluscs have higher iron concentrations than we expected for invertebrate fauna. We calculate the number of individual food items from a selection of marine and terrestrial species needed to provide the protein and iron requirements of a hypothetical group of hunter-gatherers, identify contrasts in peoples' requirements for and access to nutrients and resources, and discuss the implications for prehistoric subsistence strategies and human evolution.