Whether you are Bill Gates, Lady Gaga or Julius Malema, chances are that your forefathers came from the Eastern Cape. This is according to research by Curtis Marean, a professor at the Arizona State University, in the USA. Curtis has just received funding of R10-million from the world’s leading funding organisation, the National Science Foundation, to prove his theory that the Pinnacle Point golf estate in Mossel Bay did not produce only 2010 British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen, but the world’s entire population. Evidence from Curtis’s massive inter-disciplinary research of the past 11 years was used to convince the notoriously prudent foundation to fund his work, which he does in co-operation with researchers at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. A Nelson Mandela University botanist, Professor Richard Cowling, one of the principal investigators on the team, said the evidence included the remains of shellfish and scales of edible bulbs piled in prehistoric “kitchen refuse sites”.
Among the finds were bone fish hooks, stone tools and an alikreukel (periwinkle) shell decoration thought to have been used to brighten a cave. Marean’s hypothesis is that, between 120000 and 190000 years ago, Earth was hit by a brutal ice age. With many parts of the planet already too dry or too cold to support life, the global population of early Stone Age hominids was reduced from 10000 to only 600 breeding individuals – a figure revealed by the latest population genetics research. These last survivors of our forebears survived because they lived on the Aghulhas plain, a coastal area stretching from the Southern Cape into Eastern Cape and up to Port Elizabeth. Today, this plain is covered by coastal waters, but during that era, with much more water bound up in ice, the sea level was much lower and the plain was exposed.
The theory is that three factors allowed this small band to sneak through the grim evolutionary bottleneck of that period while the rest of their kind, across the planet, died. The first factor was the warming effect of the Agulhas ocean current, which flowed along the edge of the Aghulhas plain. Secondly, there was a great diversity and density of edible shellfish such as mussels, alikreukel and limpets, as well as fish and other marine organisms that our forefathers could eat. “The third factor was the amazing edible bulbs, an excellent source of quality carbohydrates, in the surrounding fynbos. We now know the fynbos biome is the richest in the world in terms of range and density of bulbs, tubers and corms,” said Cowling. The early Stone Age hominids had to get smart quickly to learn how to access this food by fishing and digging with sticks. Their daily battle to survive and the innovation it encouraged honed their evolution and they became the first modern humans. They were excavating silcrete rock and heating it to make fine cutting tools – the first example of mining and engineering – and they were apparently co-ordinating their foraging trips to the coast from their inland communities with the help of a lunar calendar. The direct descendants of these original modern humans were the San of Southern Africa, but they also colonised the rest of the world, Cowling explained. “So everybody alive today comes from this coast. That’s the theory – and all the evidence so far supports it.”