How shellfish saved the human race


110 Responses to “How shellfish saved the human race”

  1. Pantograph says:

    To us chimps may look the same (although those working with chimps seem to be able to tell them apart by looks alone without any trouble) but I bet that to a chimp every chimp looks different.

  2. Daedalus says:

    Awesome. We probably ate shellfish casually before we had to rely on them, so that doesn’t necessarily invalidate the idea. And homo sapiens being big aquatic-meat-eaters might help explain some of our genetic quirks (gives a bit of a kicker to the “aquatic ape” concept).

    One bit of info that keeps popping into my head that my undergrad in Antrho didn’t do much to address: when did we have boats? I mean, we were tool-using chimps long before we were humans…I wonder how long it takes us to get the idea to tie a few logs together and float out to sea and stab things with sticks.

    • Aquatic ape is an intriguing, but pretty well discredited hypothesis. Marean is talking about mostly-modern humans who lived along the shore of the ocean and collected shellfish from the beach, shallow waters, and exposed areas during low tide. Big difference.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Shellfish could also be a modern savior.

    They are easly aquacultured, do not take tons of baitfish to grow, and do not polute their waters like fish farming does.

    Now if only I liked their flavor..

  4. technogeek says:

    Locusts, unlike any other insect, are explicitly kosher — when locusts came through and devastated your crops, the bugs themselves might be your only remaining food supply. The same principle applies in other circumstances; survival has always been recognized to trump dietary laws.

    Or, as an ancient tale has it:

    “Rabbi, you must help me! I bought a roast, but when I brought the package home and opened it, I found a ham! Two packages must have gotten switched… We’re really short on cash and this roast was supposed to last us until payday. What can I do?”

    “Go ahead and cook the roast.”

    “But I just told you, it’s a ham!”

    “Don’t worry. God will understand. I promise you, this one time, the traif is kosher!”

  5. wjc says:

    Not that i don’t think has merit, but if this is true, it’s interesting that there are any cases at all of shellfish allergy. You’d think that a bottleneck event like this would have hard-coded the ability to process shellfish in our DNA by weeding out those who couldn’t live on it.

  6. Eric Ragle says:

    Like other readers I’m sure, I couldn’t help but think of certain Bible passages as I was reading this.

    I am quite entertained by trying to see how those ancient stories came to be and this article certainly gives some valuable insight.

  7. Heteromeles says:

    People already made the comment about shellfish eaters.

    I’d like to make the point about Neanderthals, who were doing just fine up in Europe at this point.

    It’s interesting to think that our lineage came within 2000 people of going extinct, and then, over the next 110,000 years, proceeded to wipe out the competition.

    I’d suggest that it’s not that we necessarily got smarter by eating shellfish, it’s that we got lucky that the climatic fluctuations put the neanderthals and other Homo species on the declining population side about the time our ancestors started showing up.

    After all, we are weaker and have *smaller* brains than Neanderthals. I’d say that shellfish almost certainly allowed our ancestors to survive in a remote corner of the world. Beyond that, it’s a “just so” story, and it’s hard to argue why it’s obvious that some gracile beach bums in South Africa are necessarily going to have better nutrition than a bunch of big-game hunting Neanderthal jocks up north.

    If you want some other hypotheses, try these:
    a. Our ancestors were better at long distance running hunts than the Neanderthals, and there are more small animals that can be hunted this way than there are the big ones the Neanderthals apparently went after.

    b. The Neanderthals show the same kinds of skeletal injuries that bronco riders do, suggesting that they liked to hunt close in. Perhaps they simply had lousy pitching arms, whereas our ancestors could throw better.

    c. The one no one mentions: domestication. Modern humans attempt to domesticate every animal they come across, and our food now comes almost totally from domesticated animals and plants. I wonder if our ancestors were simply more child-like and willing to make friends with wolfie (or whatever). The partnerships with dogs and other species gave us a critical edge. I’ve never seen any evidence of another hominid domesticating anything, although gorillas will play with kittens. To add to this point, I’d point out that the closest thing to an ancestral dog left (dingos and pariah dogs) are found most often along the coasts of Asia, except in Australia and PNG, where humans introduced them. Hmmm. There’s that coast thing again.

  8. Artimus Mangilord says:

    This is pretty hard to swallow. The earth IS only 6,000 years old after all.

    • Anonymous says:

      There is a genetic bottleneck in the Bible. You may have heard of it? Noah’s Flood. Eight survivors. Its pretty famous.

      And along with the story of the Rabbi, there’s the tale of King David eating the showbread which backs up that commenter’s point, I think.

  9. Anonymous says:

    This might explain why so many people
    are very shellfish.

  10. Mark Gordon says:

    The Nobel Conference is one of the few things I miss from the days of my youth in middle-of-nowhere Minnesota.

  11. Anonymous says:

    This is a fascinating theory, and I can’t deny that our modern genetic homogeneity lends itself to the hypothesis of a genetic bottleneck.

    But I’m having a hard time believing that only one single group of individuals in the entire world figured out how to eat something new to survive. Nature is full of examples of animals adapting to changing conditions socially – bears learned to eat trash, Great Lakes animals learned to eat Zebra Mussels, and hell, watch squirrel ingenuity in defeating devices to keep them off of bird feeders. There was just a story yesterday about a crow that used tools and a three stage process to get him some goodies. I’m to believe that some of our ancient relations on the family tree couldn’t figure out how to forage, fish, or hunt for something new?

    I have a tough time believing that out of multiple population groups on all seven continents only a single group was capable of adapting to some extreme change. Is there some other possible explanation for the lack of genetic variance?

    • Anon–A key here is that this is taking place prior to humans leaving Africa. So it’s not all the humans on six continents…it’s all the humans on one continent. One continent where, Marean thinks (based on climate models) there were only 4-to-6 places that would have been habitable during this time period. He’s not proposing that only this group ever figured out how to eat shellfish. It’s that this group was in the right place, at the right time, to start living a shellfish-based lifestyle just when it was most important.

    • Beans says:

      Anon: Maggie Koerth-Baker is right. This is before humans made it out of Africa. It has been a couple of years since I finished my Anthropology courses, but if I remember correctly bottlenecks have happened to a number of different species. Cheetahs come to mind. They are so genetically similar that their numbers may have been reduced to a few dozen (or less) breeding pairs. Humans have been through a few bottlenecks.

      Also the Aquatic Ape hypothesis is silly, but I love it.

  12. Anonymous says:

    This is so flood like.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Credit where credit is due – the aquatic ape hypothesis was (I believe) first proposed by anthropologist Elaine Morris in her book “The Descent of Woman,” which was originally dismissed by most academics as a kind of feminist rejoinder to the theories expounded by Desmond Morris in “The Naked Ape.” In her book, Dr. Morris went on at some length about how human evolution had been shaped by a long amphibian interregnum.

    And it really wouldn’t take a huge brain to notice another creature, like an otter, diving and coming back up with something edible. Even dumb animals can learn how to do things by simply aping (literally) another animal.

  14. RustyTrawler says:

    The bible stories are, at most, 3000-4000 years old. There’s no way that there’s a connection to anything that may have happened 190,000 years ago.

    • mdh says:

      the stories – as written – are 3K to 4K years old.

      As for the tales themselves, even though I disbelieve them, I cannot say how long they had been passed down for before being written down. I’m sure you can’t either.

      • Anonymous says:

        No, the stories were not handed down over 190,000 years. Of that I am sure.

        The current line of thinking is that the Torah stories were written down about 2500 years ago, and some of those tales may have existed orally up to around 1000 years before that. Even if you believe the origins of these stories may be even older than that, that’s still nowhere close to as old as this bottleneck.

        Besides, if the shellfish hypothesis is true, those humans living on the beach were just surviving, living their lives with no idea whether there were other humans out there in the world or how many there might be.

  15. Dave (in MA) says:

    Linda Seebach: I’m not an editor, but phrases like “A couple hundred thousand years ago” always bug me because of the missing “of”.

  16. ncm says:


    It wasn’t 130,000 years ago, the last bottleneck was less than 60,000 years ago, at the time of the Toba eruption on Sumatra. It wasn’t 1000 individuals, it was “possibly as few as 1000 breeding pairs”, which means 2000, but maybe as many as 20,000. That’s damned few people, without need to exaggerate.

    It’s not hard at all to look up this sort of thing, these days.

    • SamSam says:

      Well, Curtis Marean, PhD., at the 2008 Nobel Conference, linked above, and in his 2007 article published in Nature, claims that this major bottleneck was 130-190,000 years ago. Who is it that you’re sighing at and suggesting could easily “look up this sort of thing,” Maggie or Curtis Marean?

      • ncm says:

        I’m sighing at Maggie, who has evidently failed to understand what Dr. Marean is reporting. (It’s possible — even likely — that there have been other population bottlenecks before the Toba eruption, but we would have no way to study those genetically.) When a breeding population of humans survives a natural disaster, there are reasons; vs. extinction, which may happen by accident. A more widely varied diet may have been one such reason. The adoption of a marine diet did not need to coincide with a population bottleneck; rather, such a diet helps explain why, later, a bottleneck did not lead, as other places, to a local extinction.

        • Maggie Koerth-Baker says:


          Dr. Marean read this before posting and thought I reported his research exactly right. I do tend to fact check my original reporting with the researchers. Just FYI.

          It’s also worth noting that there have been other bottlenecks, in other places. Is it possible that you’re sighing because you’re thinking of a different event?

  17. Peter K. says:

    Hasn’t Dawkins already been going on about this idea for years?

    All that talk of “The Shellfish Gene” . . .

  18. ciacontra says:

    1,000 individuals? So we really are descended from the crew of the Galactica…

    • Rob says:

      Look around you. I’m more willing to believe Ark B

    • Anonymous says:

      “1,000 individuals? So we really are descended from the crew of the Galactica…”

      So say we all! AHAHAHAHAHA! This was my very first thought when I read the bottleneck paragraph.

      I hated the very ending, hatehatehatehate, but can’t help but miss the best frakking show on Earth.

  19. cowtown says:

    “Naturally, this all begs the question, ‘Could humans adapt to and survive modern, anthropogenic climate change as well?’”

    Sure we could. In fact, we’d probably do great, statistically. It’s just that an 85% survival rate means a billion people will die.

  20. KWillets says:

    Wasn’t there a book about this — The Shellfish Gene?

  21. Antinous / Moderator says:

    I, for one, welcome our new blue points on the half-shell overlords.

  22. PBryden says:

    Superb and fascinating Maggie. Thanks for pointing us to Marean’s work.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Anon #14,

    case in point;
    We are on our second bird feeder because the squirrels keep ripping the lids off of them in order to get to the seeds. The glazed-over, half-crazed-stare of the starving really is the mother of invention.

    G’nak-Tek Baby!

  24. Jonathan Badger says:

    Perhaps Thomas Cahill could write a book about this — maybe titled “Humanity On The Halfshell: How shellfish saved civilization”. Or something like that.

  25. awwhoneybear says:

    “Ancient humans would have had to be able to do some pretty complex thinking about concepts like time, Marean said. They would have to be able to make connections between unrelated things, like phases of the moon, tides and when shellfish were most plentiful. And they’d have to be able to communicate all that to other people.”

    I have an idea (no idea if there’s any evidence whatsoever to back it up) that when human beings were at earlier stages of evolutionary development, they were more “in tune” with their instinctual drives (read: less higher brain development to distract them from or have them question their most primal urges). There are animals would eat shellfish, and have developed great ways to figure out the importance of moon cycles and tides (even if they are not conscious of the abilities they have). I agree that humans must have been at least somewhat creative to eat shellfish, but I think their instincts were probably more in the forefront of their consciousness than they are for us now, and this could have played apart.

    Great article, btw!

  26. daemonsquire says:

    There was an interesting article in November’s Harper’s (subscription only), about a “Little Ice Age”, a decline in global temps between the 15th and 19th centuries. It is suggested that it was caused when, in the wake of the many plagues carried around the world at the dawn of the age of exploration, some 25% of the human population was wiped out, more in some areas; and, for instance, in Europe, some 25-45% of the arable land returned to forest, creating a huge carbon sink, which cooled things down.

    The article was written to illustrate a pre-industrial occurrence of anthropogenic climate change (thru drastic removal of anthropos). Vis-à-vis diversity, there were still a few hundred million folk milling about among the corpses in the 15th century, so it’s not quite the eye of the genetic needle you’re describing in this post… shit, I don’t even know now why I brought it up.

    Mmm, I love oysters! I’m going to follow that up from now on, by reporting that it’s indicative of having a big brain. I’ll see how that fills my aphrodesiac needs.

  27. Maggie Koerth-Baker says:

    Some quick links with good explanations of why most archaeologists/biological anthropologists don’t buy the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis. Hint: it has nothing to do with sexism, and everything to do with lack of evidence.

  28. Linda Seebach says:

    As an editor, now retired, I would have corrected “hone in on.” Yes, it’s widespread enough to be acknowledged in dictionaries, but that is true of many errors, and using it marks you as a careless reader. It’s plausible, though, so it falls in the category of malapropisms that linguists call “eggcorns” — as in, “mighty oaks from tiny eggcorns grow.” See, for instance, the linguistics blog Language log at and search for eggcorn. Or see Chris Waigl’s list which has hundreds of examples.

  29. Anonymous says:

    To learn to eat shellfish all you have to do is be at the beach when the gulls are fishing for them and then dropping them from up high to crack them open. It’s absolutely fascinating to watch, it would be impossible not to notice.

    If you’re hungry all you have to do is get to the dropped shellfish before the bird does. Children seem to try this naturally.

  30. Anonymous says:

    Some people are characterizing Neanderthals as different from us but we have many within our population who could pass, so the generalization goes only so far: they may have had big nasal cavities to deal with the cold, the stocky build is also adapted for the cold, the injuries are similar to football injuries, and then (some would be surprised to hear it) they produced extremely elegant and refined spear points. There is nothing to suggest that Neanderthals were inferior, nor is there anything to suggest that they were killed off. What’s wrong with facing the obvious: we are, in part, them.

  31. bcsizemo says:

    While I agree that a written form of communication that far back is highly unlikely, it’s not unlikely that they had preception.

    Even a small child would soon realize the tide is moving in and out over time. (Fortunatley that time period is not 12 hours, as it would appear the same at the same time day in and day out.) Given the fact they lived at or near the coast they would have seen this in a short period of time. If they actively fish or searched for fish/shellfish then they would have soon realized the height of the tide would have influenced the amount of food they could find.

    What would you say the preception and tool capatiblity of these ancestors was? That of a 7-8 year old or perhaps 10? Obviously things like communication, writing, and self expression would have been much lower. But at that moment in time those would all been secondary to survival.

  32. Anonymous says:

    “Naturally, this all begs the question”


    No it doesn’t.

  33. pyster says:

    The B-Ark theory is the only way I survive through the day without slaughtering everything that touches my eyes.

  34. awwhoneybear says:

    *animals who eat shellfish

  35. Daedalus says:

    Oh, there’s a hilarious paucity of evidence, so I wouldn’t call AAT a slam-dunk by any measure. But since we do precious little scuba-diving archeology and water tends to wash away/erode evidence of stuff that happens near it pretty quickly, I can’t say a lack of evidence has shown convincingly that the concept lacks merit. Personally, I think the very fact that evidence is difficult to preserve and find in aquatic conditions lends credence to the idea that water has been under-sold as an influence on human evolution (and the evolution of many species). It’s not like we can easily do thirty years of excavation off the coast of South Africa like the Leakeys have been doing in the Rift. There’s probably a lot that we’re not seeing there.

  36. Russell Letson says:

    “to hone in on when our bottleneck likely happened”

    O please, “HOME in on.” It’s bad enough when cable newsreaders say it. In print, it’s almost painful.

    • RedShirt77 says:

      Both Home and Hone are correct. Honing is the act of sharpening something such as a kniofe to a point. “Homing in on” is a phrase that comes from homing pigeons finding their homes.

      Both describe a process by which one arrives at a point.

  37. Anonymous says:

    Why did humans have a bottleneck due to climate change, and the chimps did not?

    Seems counter-intuitive. Humans are much more adaptable than chimps.

  38. Anonymous says:

    The biggest problem with the hypothesis is that shellfish and roots are not a very good food source to depend upon exclusively. While the diet would be high in protein and carbs, there is almost no fat. High protein-zero fat diets can actually be deadly. Therefore, a shellfish subsistence would not make any sense unless it was being supplemented by scavenged marrow and brains, the two food sources that humans really are exceptionally well adapted to take advantage of.

    • Perla says:

      As long as they manage to reproduce and have a child that lives, it doesn’t really matter that a high protein low fat diet kills them off, and I fail to believe they wouldn’t catch a fatty fish once in a while or horror upon horror, eat a fattier human once in a while.

  39. Anonymous says:

    Eating shell fish is nothing! The first person to eat an olive…now that was a brave soul!!!!

  40. Anonymous says:

    did one of them eat a bad oyster?
    cuz i would feel bad for that person……….

  41. Anonymous says:

    Hmm, hemp seed oil is high in omega3′s… maybe that’s why it’s illegal, because it makes people smart and would help the masses realize that most of us are being controlled and programmed to dispute this kind of research.

  42. Anonymous says:

    “You can’t just walk down to the beach and score yourself some sweet shellfish action (at least, not enough to sustain a society) without being pretty bright.” Try telling that to the Chacma baboons who according to David Attenborough if not their wikipedia entry do just that in chapter 7 of

  43. mistersquid says:

    Clever arguments that ignore common sense. Animals without human-proprotioned brains eat shellfish: otters, starfish, and other shellfish.

    These animals don’t need to know jack about tides and shellfish population; they just need to be able to smell food.

    You don’t need to be a genius to find or get food. If that were the case, most things would not be alive.

  44. Anonymous says:

    If you use 80 plants and 14 animals, and you lose 10 plants and two animals, you can just shift your resources. When you commit yourself to agriculture that has very narrow environmental parameters, and your whole population is dependent on that, slight changes in the environment can have catastrophic effects

    The thing to note here is that we have a lot more than 80 plants and 14 animals in agriculture. I’d guess one to two orders of magnitude more available species. If diversity of species were the criteria, then we’d be far better off now.

    What agriculture needs is a climate that is stable on the order of a growing season. It doesn’t matter if it has “narrow environmental parameters” (which to be honest, aren’t usually that narrow) as long as the local environment doesn’t drift outside of those parameters in a single season.

    For example, global warming shouldn’t be a problem because it is a slow process. OTOH, it would be a problem if Yellowstone caldera in early spring suddenly puked up several thousand cubic kilometers of volcanic ash and sulfur dioxide. The entire Northern hemisphere growing season would probably be wasted, either because the fields are under a few meters of ash or because of reduced light levels and temperatures perhaps 20 C lower than present.

    Agriculture can quite handily adapt to slow climate changes. Fast ones are the killer.

  45. dwdyer says:

    Does anyone else find it interesting that the scientist involved here is named “Marean”?

  46. amuderick says:

    I’m not sure that the ‘genetic bottleneck because of environment’ argument is at solid with humans as with animals. We are tribal and we engage in constant group warfare. I think it is more likely that the descendents of that bottleneck are our ancestors due to warfare wiping out the competition. I believe the situation with the Neanderthals being out-competed (which includes war) is similar.

  47. Anonymous says:

    I wonder why the AAT would imply that ancestral primates were forced onto the beaches by competition or climate change. Seems that as a learned behavior alone those that took up eating in the intertidal would have survived and benefited and gained an advantage over their thick skulled arboreal cousins still cramming leaves and bitter fruit,or the occasional chunk of carrion into their gullets if they could find enough.

  48. MitchSchaft says:

    Sorry, Russel, ‘Hone in’ is a legitimate phrase.

    • george57l says:

      ‘Hone in’ is not a good usage as far as I am aware. One ‘homes in’ as in seeks something out, gets closer. A hone is a device for sharpening something, e.g a razor hone. So one ‘hones’ something, but one does not ‘hone in’. Hence it is easy to see how they get mixed up, with meanings that are metaphorically close but not at all in fact the same.

      The real thing I wanted say is that 2 days ago on BBC TV I saw the latest programme in the Life series – this week, Primates. And there was film of baboons is S.Africa eating shellfish when the tide was out. I just found this link too.

      So I am not sure about those who say the very big brain and humanoid characteristics came first. Unless I misunderstood and they were referring to primates in general as opposed to specific homo sapiens.

      • Rob says:

        Irregardless, it’s considered good usage now.

        • Leonard Low says:

          @ #50. It’s rather ironic, then, that “irregardless” is NOT good usage. It’s not even good english. :p

      • Tdawwg says:

        Check the Oxford English Dictionary. From the fourth sense of hone as a verb:

        intr. to hone in. To head directly for something; to turn one’s attention intently towards something. Usu. with on. Cf. HOME v. 5.

        It’s apparently an Americanism.

        • george57l says:

          Americanism? Synonym: mis-usage; not English English.
          I could care less.
          Hone in
          “usage The few commentators who have noticed hone in consider it to be a mistake for home in. It may have arisen from home in by the weakening of the \m\ sound to \n\ or may perhaps simply be due to the influence of hone. Though it seems to have established itself in American English (and mention in a British usage book suggests it is used in British English too), your use of it especially in writing is likely to be called a mistake. Home in or in figurative use zero in does nicely.”

          Personally I think there is one error above. The last “used” should be “mis-used”. ;-)

          (End of today’s dose of pedantry. If I keep reducing the dose I’ll be fit to mix in polite company soon. But I would think a well-honed shellfish shell would have made a good hominid tool all those years ago. Hope someone finds the Life clip of S.African baboons opening shellfish, somewhere on the intertubes.)

  49. Anonymous says:

    I agree it is possible that the Archaic Homo sapiens of South Africa utilized shellfish as a source of sustainability. They were in that geological location during that time period and they did have the brain capacity to make such tools (late acheulian). However, I doubt that they “saved the human race”. During the sa…me time we see fossil evidence of archaic Homo sapiens, H. neanderthalensis, and even Homo heidelbergensis living in other parts of Africa, Europe and Asia. They could have also made it through this glacial period. Check out for more on the topic.

  50. mdh says:

    These animals don’t need to know jack about tides and shellfish population; they just need to be able to smell food.

    And so the ability to smell food from not food obviously has nothing to do with the evolutionary success of the large brained individuals who could do so?

    You don’t need to be a genius to find or get food.

    There are a lot of things you don’t need to be a genius in order to do, but your parents have to have survived if you are to be born.

    • Anonymous says:

      And so the ability to smell food from not food obviously has nothing to do with the evolutionary success of the large brained individuals who could do so?

      Compared to other animals that aren’t quite as bright, people are actually pretty poor at smelling. Our development seems to have a lot more with spotting food from not food.

  51. Anonymous says:

    Or maybe oysters really do improve potency…

  52. F N Canuck says:

    and when did mankind start using cocktail sauce, lemon juice, and drawn butter with his shellfish? How about THAT guy’s brain, eh?

  53. Anonymous says:

    ..which came fiiirst, the big brain or the sheeeell…

  54. VesnaVK says:

    The idea that we got smart first, then discovered shellfish, is to me quite backwards. How did we get smart in the first place? It takes a lot of protein and fat to build our great big brains. Where did we source these?

    I posted some of my thoughts on this topic close to two years ago:

    An excerpt:

    “…if you were out in the middle of nowhere and needed to survive, you would find water, very quickly. You’d need it before, and more frequently than food. And in that water, you’d find things to eat far easier to catch and kill than anything on land. Except, of course, for bugs. And our primal ancestors were insectivores.

    It makes sense to me that fish and other water critters are a missing food link between insects and big land animals. From the water is where we got enough protein and Omega 3 to grow brains big enough to figure out how to kill the animals we need considerable intelligence to kill. We don’t have the teeth and claws and speed to hunt a gazelle. We have the [i]brains[/i] to do it.”

  55. VesnaVK says:

    The idea that we got smart first, then discovered shellfish, is to me quite backwards. How did we get smart in the first place? It takes a lot of protein and fat to build our great big brains. Where did we source these?

    I posted some of my thoughts on this topic close to two years ago:

    An excerpt:

    “…if you were out in the middle of nowhere and needed to survive, you would find water, very quickly. You’d need it before, and more frequently than food. And in that water, you’d find things to eat far easier to catch and kill than anything on land. Except, of course, for bugs. And our primal ancestors were insectivores.

    It makes sense to me that fish and other water critters are a missing food link between insects and big land animals. From the water is where we got enough protein and Omega 3 to grow brains big enough to figure out how to kill the animals we need considerable intelligence to kill. We don’t have the teeth and claws and speed to hunt a gazelle. We have the [i]brains[/i] to do it.”

  56. Brian Macker says:

    Just because we can trace our ancestry back to a 1000 individuals doesn’t mean we were thriving and then passed through a bottleneck that nearly made us go extinct.

    The opposite might be the case. We might have originated as a sexually isolated subspecies of a thriving species and because of our superiority managed to wipe out the parent species.

  57. Anonymous says:

    Interesting idea though the theory that eating shellfish results in a big brain sounds like some sort of modern dietary based fad thinking. The only thing you can say for certain is that our large brains demand LOTS of glucose so seeking calorie dense sources is always a priority. Maybe it was the honey bee that saved us?

    The shellfish idea reminds me of some study I did of the ancient people of South America. There was a people that lived on the western coast of Peru from 5,000 to approx 2,800 yrs ago. One thing that distinguished them was that they left HUGE piles of shells from harvesting mollusks. Since they are basically chunks of hard lime they survived the eons very well.

    Now, if there really was a population eating lots of mollusks over a few thousands years in Africa I’d assume there be middens of old shells to be found. These piles may be off the coast due to drops in sea level during the glaciation. Get out the underwater rovers!

  58. mistersquid says:

    @mdh #40

    There are many shellfish predators who are plenty successful evolutionarily who can hardly be considered “large brained”: snails, crabs, starfish, and rays to name a few.

    All these animals can detect shellfish and none of them have particularly large brains, if they have a brain at all (e.g. starfish). Ergo, big brains are not required to smell/see/find shellfish.

    Some modern humans hunt for shellfish using environmental cues, but most modern humans do not hunt shellfish unless you consider going to the fish market hunting. Most modern human shellfishing is done with big giant nets and according to timetables planned by people not involved with shellfishing at all.

    Humans may have avoided extinction nearly 200,000 years ago because they ate shellfish. Those humans may have used environmental data to optimize their shellfish hunting. Their larger brains may have assisted them in their hunting. But none of these are necessities. The article is conjecture and as Anonymous #16 notes, you can just watch other animals eating shellfish to find shellfish. Big brains are optional.

    What really makes me skeptical about all of this, however, is that tide charts imply a system of writing and of rudimentary mathematics. I don’t need to be an anthropologist to know that suggesting hominids had writing more than 100,000 years ago is unlikely at best.

    • SamSam says:

      The fact that crabs, starfish, and other shellfish predators can predate on shellfish without being too bright does not imply that Humans could have collected shellfish while being dumb.

      Crabs and other predators spent millions of years evolving to eat shellfish. There is a symbiotic relationship between the crabs and their prey, and they co-evolved together. As the (other) shellfish developed tougher claws, the crabs would have developed stronger pincers. They would have also developed to naturally hone/home in on the smell of their prey.

      Humans did NOT evolve to eat shellfish (or at least not shellfish in particular), and so had to use smarts to get them.

      Consider: dogs and pigs are considered very smart (at least compared with starfish), and yet they cannot “just walk down to the beach and score [themselves] some sweet shellfish action.”

      Sure, a dog might be able to find a stranded oyster or two, but a population of a thousand dogs on the coast of Africa would not be able to survive through oyster hunting alone for many generations.

      Point being: if we really were able to survive on roots and shellfish for an extended period, we did it by being bright. The fact that crabs can also hunt shellfish does not diminish that argument.

      (Whether we started correlating phases of the moon to tides or not: how would we know? I personally would think that such an ability would be unlikely to emerge before language, which most people point to emerging 40-50,000 years ago)

    • mdh says:

      funny. I used to harvest my own mussels.

  59. Anonymous says:

    Just so we know that there are still a lot of mysteries out there, this “down to 1000 individuals” theory is not particularly well supported, and is subject to a lot of very active scientific critique right now.

    That is, there is not a lot of consensus within and without this theory for much of what is being printed in popular science books.

    Of course, this is exactly as science is supposed to work, and all is well. But we really don’t know if any of this is the slightest bit true; it is a far-out theory that is gaining a little traction, but has a long way to go.

  60. Anonymous says:

    We’re not the only primate species that eats shellfish either. In the 1960′s at Cape Point in South Afrika, a game ranger named Gerald Wright documented baboons using low tide to eat mussels.

  61. tim says:

    But I’m having a hard time believing that only one single group of individuals in the entire world figured out how to eat something new to survive

    That wouldn’t be the implication, necessarily. You just need to have only one group that both figured out the new cuisine thing and managed to survive down the ages to produce our gene pool. Many groups could have dealt with new food sources but died out for other reasons, such as alien abduction, rapture, rampant child abuse, excessive government, etc. Eventually we will follow them, most likely because of stupidity and lack of a proper space program. That’s the one that will always, always get you in the end.

  62. Anonymous says:

    Alister Hardy article in New Scientist on 17 March 1960:

    My thesis is that a branch of this primitive ape-stock was forced by competition from life in the trees to feed on the sea-shores and to hunt for food, shell fish, sea-urchins etc., in the shallow waters off the coast. I suppose that they were forced into the water just as we have seen happen in so many other groups of terrestrial animals. I am imagining this happening in the warmer parts of the world, in the tropical seas where Man could stand being in the water for relatively long periods, that is, several hours at a stretch

  63. Chuck says:

    Ah — so the Scientologists are partially right. We didn’t evolve from clams, but rather the clams saved us from extinction.:-P

  64. Anonymous says:

    Mankind has likely gone through a series of such bottlenecks.

    We know that there was one 74 thousand years ago when Mt Tuba on Sumatra blew up, killing everything on the Indian sub continent. That event, and the thousand year ice age which followed, killed off all but 10 thousand people in the world. The people just west of the area covered in ash became Caucasians; while those southeast of the explosion became Asians.

    Consider the differences between Humans and Chimps, those could only be derived from such bottlenecks. The changes to our feet and hips are useful for both grassland running and for walking in waste deep water, as would having less body hair. But, those changes must have occurred before 3 and half million years ago, because we have a record of humans walking in volcanic ash from then. Their feet and stride were much like ours.

    A vital change must have occurred very early, because it turned us into a species. Humans have 23 pairs of Chromosomes while Chimps have 24 pairs. Thus, Humans cannot reproduce with Chimps. We could not recombine back inro the larger group.

    The scientist say that Chimps have twice as much genetic variation as humans while Blacks have twice as much variation as do Caucasians and Asians.

  65. Heteromeles says:

    @Samsam #57: Good idea to Google “wild pigs beach.” Unfortunately, these are tourist pics, rather than scientific reports, but it’s quite evident that there are feral pigs eating stuff on beaches in various parts of the world.

    You can also add bears to the list of intelligent land animals that forage on beaches. Be that as it may, this is a sideline. The point is that intelligent animals can learn to forage on beaches, and it doesn’t suddenly turn them into keystone species like humans.

    This article has two important points:
    1. Our direct ancestors bottlenecked, and the surviving population seems to have survived on the South African coast (although I’m choking on 2,000 people for 60,000 years. That’s got to be the low number that was reached at some point during that period).
    2. Based on the fact that bottlenecking populations often evolve quickly, these scientists are positing that there was something formative about that bottleneck, and settled on shellfish eating.

    These anthropologists really need to understand black swans (the event kind, not the bird). #2 is supposition, pure and simple, and it looks like a black swan (basically, an ad hoc explanation based on logic to explain something that was totally unpredictable going in. In this case, we’re talking about the survival of our flavor of human species).

    We’re pointing out the problems with the idea. For instance, the pigs on the Florida beaches aren’t (AFAIK) plotting the overthrow of humans, nor are bears, sea otters, or any other clam eater. More importantly, there were many other human species around at that time. For all we know, they were all eating clams, when they could get them.

    In this regard, it’s worth noting that the last evidence for Neanderthals is from Gorham’s cave on the Rock of Gibraltar, which was thought to be 5 km from the coast at that time.

  66. Anonymous says:

    Credit where credit really is due – Elaine Morgan did not invent the aquatic ape theory, she was a writer/journalist rather than a scientist, and she popularised the ideas of the marine biologist Alister Hardy who first proposed the theory in 1930. Check wikipedia.

  67. Anonymous says:

    Fookin prawns.

    (sorry, I had to)

    Where did the info of ‘less than 1,000′ come from by the way?

  68. Anonymous says:

    A fascinating article with equally fascinating comments–thanks to Maggie and the entire slate of commenters!

  69. Anonymous says:

    that looks delicious.

  70. Anonymous says:

    Pandas should read this story. Stop eating one kind of bamboo and maybe there will be more of you!!

  71. Anonymous says:

    I thought that vast parts of Europe where already inhabited by human beings 300,000 to 400,000 years ago. In addition, at this period of time, there was also Neandertalians – who by the way had bigger brains than we do, though they were slightly less sophisticated than our ancestors… Also, couldn’t we explain a less diverse genetic diversity among humans by the fact that we are a relatively newcomers, whilst some species of monkeys preceeded us by a couple of million years? All in all, there are certainly a lot of reasons to explain why we have overwhelmed climate change, including our ability to eat any kind of food… but I am rather skeptical to explain the survival of the whose human race by having eaten sea food 160,000 years ago.

  72. Ted8305 says:

    Leviticus 11:10 (from
    “And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you.”

    • Anonymous says:

      seriously? Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish…We need each other to be what we must be, what we are called to be.”
      – Pope John Paul II

    • Anonymous says:

      Or god loves shrimp and thus forbids us from eating them.

    • Anonymous says:

      Wow, it’s a good thing man hadn’t created religion yet, they would have been screwed.

    • Anonymous says:

      A tasty, tasty abomination.

  73. Anonymous says:

    He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.
    - Jonathan Swift

    Oh, and FIRST!

  74. Anonymous says:

    Anonymous | #16 | 08:48 on Wed, Dec.16 | Reply Report

    “Even dumb animals can learn how to do things by simply aping (literally) another animal.”

    Some, but few (re: almost none) know how to teach each other. All that comes to mind are chimps… and ants… I also have doubts about retention ablities…

  75. Anonymous says:

    Anonymous #94, don’t those two possibilities – that we are the result of a Gideon’s Band of survivors of an evolutionary bottleneck, and that we are the result of a Gideon’s Band of isolates who then out-competed the parent group – amount to the same thing? Either way, we’re talking about the possibility that all (modern) humanity arises from a tiny group. My interest is in the pros and cons of being so genetically similar: should be (relatively) easy to sequence diseases and stuff that we’re subject to, but one really bad disease could wipe out all of us.

  76. SamSam says:

    Based on the fact that bottlenecking populations often evolve quickly, these scientists are positing that there was something formative about that bottleneck, and settled on shellfish eating.

    This seems to be the thing you’ve been arguing about, but I don’t see who you’re arguing against. That wasn’t the focus of the article at all. Sure, it does mention in passing that “Other researchers have theorized that eating shellfish was actually the driver that allowed humans to develop the big brains we enjoy today,” but then goes on to dismiss that.

    The article was about the interesting theories that 1) there was a major bottle-neck some 120,000 years ago, and 2) probably during that time shellfish were a major part of Human’s diet, which they were able to obtain in part because of their smarts.

    The idea that eating shellfish was somehow “formative” in our evolution was not the point of the article, unless I’m missing something.

  77. Anonymous says:

    this ties in well with the Aquatic ape hypothesis

  78. glory bee says:

    The first party I was allowed to go to at age 16, someone came up to me and offered a plate of small black things which I liked the taste of and then i was asked if I’d like an oyster! Salmon roe …YES but getting that oyster down and keeping it down was a tribute to good manners and will power. Ilove fish over meat but oysters sort of sliminess does me in.

  79. Anonymous says:

    This is pretty interesting.
    And from what I’ve read, I’d be inclined to agree with Marean about big brains coming first.
    On that topic, there is a great book called “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human.” that pretty effectively argues that our brains started differentiating from that of other primates when we started eating more meat, but that what caused the largest brain size increase was the increased digestibility of cooked food. And all of this happened before 180,000 years ago.

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