In that television series I watched on PBS, Niobe Thompson was interested in the important questions like what triggered the development of the modern human mind? Part of the answer is that this development was assisted by the accident that humans found shelter in caves beside the ocean in southern Africa, not far from where I visited in 2013. Humans probably took advantage of the rich marine food sources there that were rich in poly-unsaturated fatty acids that are so valuable for the development of large modern brains. This would have given the evolution of humans a major boost. The humans likely noticed that all the shell food lying around was very good to eat and provided vital nutrients. Some say that because human brains got larger they noticed the shells. Thompson said it was more likely that because they took advantage of the food in shellfish humans developed larger brains. The regular consumption of shellfish provided nutrients for brains to become better. In either case, I wish their descendants used those big brains more often.
It is likely that humans found they could harvest more than shellfish that were lying around on beaches. It is very probable that humans learned how to harvest the wealth beneath the waves of the oceans. For example, abalone, an extremely nutritious food source, would only be available to those humans who could dive to the bottom of the
The sea is treacherous and cold. Even in southern Africa it would not be easy to harvest food from the sea. Yet humans have proved remarkably resourceful at attending to that marvelous food source in the oceans. Though the ocean was treacherous the risks were abundantly worth it. It likely enabled our early ancestors to escape extinction when the land suffered through interminable droughts. The ocean allowed our ancestors to obtain all the food they needed. The ocean contains a vast storehouse of food that can be harvested when conditions on land are as difficult as they were when our ancestors became the first modern humans and allowed them to escape the disasters that befell all of their kin species.
Thompson also went to the Badjoa of Tawi Tawi in the southern Philippines. These people are incredible divers. They can hold their breath for more than 5 minutes in search of food deep under the ocean surface. The Badjoa live in a war zone yet have mastered the art of hunting and gathering on the ocean floor.
Some of the Badjoa divers are able to dive up to 100 metres deep in search of food. That is so deep that divers who reach such depths are able to walk on the floor. Their bodies don’t float up. Humans are the only terrestrial animal that can get that deep to hunt for food. The Badjoa have diving and swimming skills that can only be compared with seals. That’s how good they are at this.
These Badjoa have for centuries passed on the diving and hunting and gathering skills to succeeding generations. There are very few groups of humans that still have these skills. The Badjoa clearly show that humans might have harvested enough food to escape extinction by mining the rich storehouse of food in the ocean. Our early ancestors may have been driven by serious environmental and climatic challenges to develop skills that enabled them to survive and thrive on food from the sea.
As Thompson said, “We are children of a changing planet forged in Africa, but also driven to the brink of extinction. Only a handful of survivors knew how to outsmart the shifting climate.” Our amazing ancestors threatened by disasters, challenged by extreme environmental hazards migrated over many generations from Africa to every part of the globe. We are only now beginning to understand what remarkable ingenuity, co-operation, and relentless determination was required to accomplish that while so many other species so like us failed to do that and perished from the earth.