Oysters literally saved our species in the wake of a dramatic and violent climate shift in a period, that ranged from about 200,000 to 100,000 years ago. The successful exploitation of oysters by early Homo Sapiens at that time contributed heavily to the survival, success and spread of our species. This episode is therefore a seminal part of the human origin story and remains an important part of our human experience today. Following is the brief history of how it happened, why it matters and what it says about our relationship with oysters today.
“IT WAS A BOLD MAN WHO FIRST ATE AN OYSTER!” - Jonathan Swift
But was it a “bold man”, who ate the first oyster? Certainly it was not one in the times of Rome or in the time of Jonathan Swift, who is so often credited as the person to coin the famous and often cited expression. No, it happened long before that. Most certainly, it happened in Africa. And our modern civilization can thank that “bold human” directly for our survival and existence.
Genetically, Homo Sapiens evolved into what we are today about 200,000 years ago. Not long thereafter, they survived the real threat of extinction caused by dramatic changes in the climate on Earth. Dr. Rick Potts, Director of The Human Origins Program Smithsonian Institution, writes:
“BEGINNING 195,000 YEARS AGO, the global climate entered a period of cold and dry conditions, that lasted for 70,000 years. In interior Africa, this shift triggered drought conditions so severe, that much of the continent would have become uninhabitable. Genetic studies of modern human DNA tell us, that at some point during this period, human populations plummeted from more than 10,000 breeding individuals to as few as 600. Homo Sapiens became a highly endangered species; we almost went extinct. This “population bottleneck” means, that all humans alive today are descended from this tiny group of survivors. The result: Our species has less genetic diversity than a single troupe of West African chimpanzees.”
WELCOME TO THE OYSTERHOOD
So there we were, our backs to the wall, facing extinction, perhaps as few as 600 Homo Sapiens left! Luckily, these outlying populations found themselves on the southernmost tip of Africa. For the first time, humans took up residence beside the sea. And now, for the first time, there were oysters to eat.
This is a seminal moment in human history because when we began to exploit oysters, it was a moment, that altered the course of human history forever. Fossil records indicate that oysters quickly became an incredibly important part of our diets. At first, they allowed us to survive. Ultimately, they allowed us to thrive. They changed us, for the better, in many ways. What occurred in a relatively brief span of time (25,000 - 50,000 years) was a miracle. It was a quantum leap in the fitness of Homo Sapiens that occurred. A population exploded and expanded. The questions of how and why that was so and come to be understood follows.
A MIRACLE PROTEIN
The Homo Sapiens, who discovered and exploited oysters (and other shellfish) had many (and new) advantages and chances to survive and thrive, than their ancestors of 100,000 years prior. There are many reasons for this. First was the cost of this protein versus other protein, at that time. Oysters were a “cheap protein”. In this case, “cost” refers to the calories extended and casualties experienced in the hunting and gathering of protein. Chasing small or medium sized animals or collecting grubs, larvae or eggs in interior Africa was strenuous and dangerous. Prior to oysters as a primary protein source human hunters were hunting and gathering mammals, reptiles, birds, grubs, larvae in terrestrial environments. This put early humans in competition with and in the company of big cats, venomous snakes and many other dangers. But when they moved into caves on the sea coast, things changed.
Why would they hunt in the hills and valleys above and behind them when they could more easily look to the sea for oysters when the tide went out? Hunting on land, for meat, was much more expensive. Danger literally surrounded you. This was not the case by the sea. Inland hunting took many more calories, hours and, inevitably, many of the ttest hunters & gatherers of any given group were injured or even eaten in the process. As a source of protein oysters were easier, safer and faster way to eat better.
Oysters were everywhere and just outside their “door”. They needed only to walk around and collect them. Few, if any, predators were present and none were competing with them for this protein. Humans opened oysters with crude tools and re. They consumed them in massive quantities as fossilized oyster middens have recently revealed. They were now getting more protein with a lot less effort and time, with much less danger and fewer casualties. Moreover, this protein was better for them (in many ways) than other forms of protein. It was more nutritious too. The same is true today.
OYSTERS, THEY DID SOME BODIES GOOD!
As important as the volume of protein itself were the rare nutrients (like zinc, iodine and amino acids) which oysters are full of. Some of these nutrients (particularly iodine) are rather important to human organ health (especially the brain) and extremely rare in the diets of previous generations of inland African populations who could not exploit oysters.
As a result of the consumption of a protein that was superior nutritionally, ubiquitous and easy to procure those populations who consumed oysters were truly blessed. This “feast” replaces a famine. Physically, they grew larger is size and stature. They became bigger, faster, stronger. Their skulls and brains grew as well. This allowed for additional and equally important mutations to occur. As their brains larger and stronger they functioned better. These people become better thinkers, tool-makers, problem-solvers and communicators. Finally, with less time spent hunting and gathering they had more time to think, wonder, create, communicate and nurture.
Oyster consuming populations became “alpha”. They dominated the gene pool.Their best and strongest hunters produced more food for their communities. Women could gather AND nurture their young. Infant mortality fell as adults were better suited to care for their young. Individuals lived longer. Ultimately, their populations increased and their range expanded. As the climate warmed and got wetter, the Sahara receeded. These larger, smarter populations were no longer isolated. Their ancestors spread North, East and West from Africa into Europe and Asia where, ultimately, the competed better with local populations for scarce resources.
THE ART OF THE OYSTER
One could still argue that none of this separates those first few that consumed the rst oysters. Or those that followed them 10 generations later. I mean this figuratively, these were very primitive “people”. They were millions of years since their DNA was “primate” but they were not much like us, really, culturally. Ancestors of the remaining few homo sapien populations were just bigger, stronger and smarter than they were 50,000 years before. And a bit more than that 25,000 years on from there. And there were a lot more of them 2,500 generations and 75,000 years later after a whomever ate the first oyster. But were they what we’d call “human”? How, if at all, were these early populations exceptional? Did oysters have anything to do with that?
Recent paleo-anthropolicical research has done much to support the theory that oysters and shell sh were a singular reason for the success of Homo Sapiens as well as the exceptional-ism of certain groups of Homo Sapiens. The simple fact that skulls and brains grew supports the beginning of some kind of an exceptionalism. But where is the proof? Well, the writing was on the wall!
Many archeological excavations in the caves of Southern Africa have now proven the link between large oyster and shellfish consumption and the first expressions of symbolism & art. We see the first red ocre paintings in the same (and so far, the only) caves we see large shell sh middens in. These caves were inhabited by the earliest known oyster-eating Homo Sapiens. So, it can be deduced, that those who first exploited oysters (and ate them most regularly) created the first known expressions of art. And therefore, culture.
This was the rst giant step for mankind which took place over a very short time and coincides precisely with the discovery and exploitation of oysters. In a blink of an evolutionary eye, we now have an exceptional population totally distinct from any other Genus and even other Homo Sapien populations (if any survived). “All of a sudden”, we have a population with signi cant leisure time, tools, language, art and culture.
Art is an expression of complex thought, communication and symbolism common to more complex, organized and successful populations of humans. It it not found in animals. Art and culture is what separates man from beast (not tools or language). Art combined with the ability to engage in symbolic, syntactic speech leads to the development of a human awareness, identity and culture.
THE PROOF IS IN THE EVOLUTIONARY TREE
Recent paleo-anthropolicical research has done much to support the theory that oysters and shell sh were a singular reason for the success of that “bottlenecked population” of Homo Sapiens (and their ancestors) as well as the exceptionalism of Homo Sapiens. We are the only members of the Genus Homo to have exploited oysters. Period.
Current scholarship and research suggests that the coastal, cave-dwelling populations of Homo Sapiens, isolated there by an cold and expanding desert, had many advantages over other members of the Genus Homo that did not migrate south, to the sea. The oyster was one of these advantages. Oysters helped this population become better suited for success and survival. These humans became exceptional and they dominated the planet in the 100,000 since. They became, well, US!
The final supporting fact is simply this: Other species of the Genus Homo who were not lucky enough to exploit oysters (Heidelbergensis, Neaderthalensis, Erectus, Floresiensis, Rudolfensis and Habilus), well, they all became extinct. Neaderthalensis and Floresiensis may have interacted even bred with Homo Sapiens (there is some genetic evidence of this) but in the end, Homo Sapiens are the only survivors of the Genus Homo.
AN OYSTER IS FOREVER
Curtis W. Marean, a paleoanthropologist and the team leader and with the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University writes, “Shell sh was one of the last additions to the human diet before domesticated plants and animals were introduced more than 10,000 years ago (the dawn of agriculture).” He adds, “It is possible that this population could be the progenitor population for all modern humans.”
If this is true then it is possible that we can all trace our ancestry back to a tiny and isolated population of humans who were forced by climate change onto the top of Southern Africa only to discover oysters (over generations perhaps) as a useful path out of this evolutionary cul-de-sac. And that makes
sense when we consider that there is all humans, form every continent and every nation from every epoch share the exact same genome. The bene t of hindsight and 100,000 of science and research made possible by our new, big, brains allows us to see the oyster bond we have share with our earliest, toughest, smartest and perhaps luckiest ancestors has lasted, well, forever.
Just as it was then, it is still today. Better access to better food allows segments of human populations to thrive. But it gets better. In the past 4,000 of human history another bond between humans can be traced through oysters. It is common denominator that transcends race, nation, creed, creed, color and class. We have ALL consumed oysters. All of us still do. Granted, some more than others. But the rich and the poor of every nation have consumed oysters raw, on the half-shell, on every continent, from ever since.
As we always have, when we eat oysters we feel blessed, rich, nourished and connected in a way that we can feel a sense of gratitude for. Oyster consumption then marks a turning point in the history of our species and our planet. It created a bond between all homo sapiens that proves eternal (so far). This is our primal connection to oysters. This is the oyster’s singular role in history and humanity.
K.I.S.S. - KEEP IT SIMPLE SAPIENS
Simple tools and beads created by oyster consuming early Homo Sapiens of Southern Africa.
If oysters helped make certain early Homo Sapiens exceptional from a biological and neurological stand point it would follow that they make modern humans feel exceptional culturally, emotionally and even spiritually. I would suggest that eating oysters also makes us feel more human. They make us feel more alive. They tie us to our survival as a species. We channel that fact every time we eat an oyster. It’s metaphysical.
But could oysters be part of a solution to the problems humanity faces today? Are we not confronted by climate change issues now? Natural, man made or accelerated by man, the climate IS changing. It IS warming. What this will mean for our ability to thrive or even survive is yet to be agreed upon. Regardless, it does not bode well for a great many places or people.
These are immutable, measurable material facts to face. Whatever the causes, ocean levels ARE rising. Oceans and bays are more acidic, warmer, more hypoxic, less diverse and less productive. Many are dying. Many are dead. Most are threatened. We have lost and are losing habitat and ecosystems (particularly coastal, estuarine ecosystems) at an alarming rate. Oysters are a cornerstone species in those ecosystems. Healthy oyster populations (wild or farmed) allow many other species to live and ecosystems to survive, possibly thrive. Humans are dependent on the health and diversity of these ecosystems for our climate, foods (wild and domesticated) and survival.
More and more of us are understanding oysters as a cornerstone species and oyster farming to be a way to create more organisms whose existence supports healthier and more diverse ecosystems. We are witness to the growth and strengthening of bonds between those who love oysters, between those who value sustainable, responsible & beneficial aquaculture.
We are recognizing and appreciating oysters not just as food but also as a way to:
- Live and eat in ways that make us feel good, strong, nourished and inspired,
- Create new jobs, protect lifestyles and the culture for those who’ve made a life and a living from the sea,
- Support sustainable and ecologically bene cial forms of food production,
- Improve water quality and foster greater biodiversity,
- Provide solutions to restore, protect and preserve coastlines and estuarine environments which:
- is where much of the seafood we eat depends upon and spends a great deal of its life in,
- are the most biodiverse zones on earth,
- protect coastal populations and infrastructure from storm surges and flooding.
Are oysters Wise Man’s answer, again? Maybe doing what saved us before is the correct way to protect our species again. Perhaps cultivating oysters and creating additional value in their consumption is a path to salvation, or part of the solution. That seems a wise path as the rst populations that originally exploited wild oysters became exceptional. They became alpha. And as in any population of any organism, alpha genes survive, win, thrive and spread. Any current or future population is a result of the success of the alpha specimens of its ancestors. In all evolved species, the smartest and strongest individuals provide for and lead those they love to greater opportunities.
I’ve built a life and a career around this theory before I even understood it, before I could articulate it. My mantra for some time now has been “Live on purpose. Make a living by making a difference.” Oysters, it occured to me some time ago, were the best way for me to accomplish all of that. Oysters involve nature, science, history, culture, cuisine and hospitality: the things I love most. My oyster advocacy allows me to deliver a message about environmental stewardship without preaching, blaming or being dismissed as a “tree-hugging, liberal, hippie” or climate change alarmist.
MY MESSAGE IS SIMPLE:
“You like these delicious oysters? Great! So let's protect, where they come from and reward those, who bring them to us fairly - so we don't lose oysters forever.” I build value in oysters, because I know, they are great for both - our bodies and the ecosystems - and communities depend on them. Oh, and because they saved us once before. I leverage our primal connection to oysters for a future where oysters and homo sapiens continue to benefit from one another.
Homo sapiens seem to have appeared in East Africa around 200,000 years ago. The oldest individuals found left their marks in the Omo remains (195,000 years ago) and the Homo sapiens idaltu (160,000 years ago), that was found at the Middle Awashsite in Ethiopia.
When modern humans reached the Near East 125,000 years ago, evidence suggests they retreated back to Africa, as their settlements were replaced by Neanderthals. It is now believed that the rst modern humans to spread east across Asia left Africa about 75,000 years ago across the Bab el Mandib connecting Ethiopia and Yemen.From the Near East, some of these people went east to South Asia by 50,000 years ago, and on to Australia by 46,000 years ago at the latest, when for the rst time H. sapiens reached territory never reached by H. erectus. H. sapiens reached Europe around 43,000 years ago, eventually replacing the Neanderthal population by 24,000 years ago. East Asia was reached by 30,000 years ago. Archaeological and genetic data suggest that the source populations of Paleolithic humans survived in sparsely wooded areas and dispersed through areas of high primary productivity while avoiding dense forest cover. The date of migration to North America is disputed; it may have taken place around 30 thousand years ago, or considerably later, around 14 thousand years ago. The oldest DNA evidence of human habitation in North America, radiocarbon dated to 14,300 years ago, has been found in fossilized human coprolitesuncovered in the Paisley Five Mile Point Caves in south- central Oregon. Colonization of the Paci c islands of Polynesia began around 1300 BCE, and was completed by 1280 CE (New Zealand). The ancestors of Polynesians left Taiwan around 5,200 years ago.
More recent migrations of language and culture groups within the modern species are also studied and hypothetised. The African Epipaleolithic Kebaran culture is believed to have reached Eurasia about 18,000 years ago, introducing the bow and arrow to the Middle East, and may have been responsible for the spread of the Nostratic languages. The people of the Afro-Asiatic language family seem to have reached Africa in 6,200 BCE, introducing the Semitic languages to the Middle East.
From there they spread around the world. An initial venture out of Africa 125,000 years ago was followed by a ood out of Africa via the Arabian Peninsula into Eurasia around 60,000 years ago, with one group rapidly settling coastal areas around the Indian Ocean and one group migrating north to steppes of Central Asia.
There is evidence from mitochondrial DNA that modern humans have passed through at least one genetic bottleneck, in which genome diversity was drastically reduced. Henry Harpending has proposed that humans spread from a geographically restricted area about 100,000 years ago, the passage through the geographic bottleneck and then with a dramatic growth amongst geographically dispersed populations about 50,000 years ago, beginning rst in Africa and thence spreading elsewhere. Climatological and geological evidence suggests evidence for the bottleneck. The explosion of Lake Toba created a 1,000 year cold period, as a result of the largest volcanic eruption of the Quaternary, potentially reducing human populations to a few tropical refugaria. It has been estimated that as few as 15,000 humans survived. In such circumstances genetic drift and founder effects would have been maximised leading to a rapid racial di erentiation after that date. The greater diversity amongst African genomes may be in part due to the greater prevalence of African refugaria during the Toba incident.
The matrilinear most recent common ancestor shared by all living human beings, dubbed Mitochondrial Eve, probably lived roughly 120–150 millennia ago, the time of Homo sapiens idaltu, probably in East Africa.
The broad study of African genetic diversity headed by Dr. Sarah Tishko found the San people to express the greatest genetic diversity among the 113 distinct populations sampled, making them one of 14 “ancestral population clusters.” The research also located the origin of modern human migration in south-western Africa, near the coastal border of Namibia and Angola.
Around 100,000-80,000 years ago, three main lines of Homo sapiens diverged. Bearers of mitochondrial haplogroup L0 (mtDNA) / A (Y-DNA) colonized Southern Africa (the ancestors of the Khoisan ( peoples), bearers of haplogroup L1 (mtDNA) / B (Y-DNA) settled Central and West Africa (the ancestors of western pygmies), and bearers of haplogroups L2, L3, and others mtDNA remained in East Africa (the ancestors of Niger–Congo- and Nilo-Saharan-speaking peoples).
Exodus from Africa
There is some evidence for the argument that modern humans left Africa at least 125,000 years before present (BP) using two different routes: the Nile Valley heading to the Middle East, at least into modern Israel (Qafzeh: 120,000–100,000 years BP); and a second one through the present-day Bab-el-Mandeb Strait on the Red Sea (at that time, with a much lower sea level and narrower extension), crossing it into the Arabian Peninsula, settling in places like the present-day United Arab Emirates (125,000 years BP) and Oman (106,000 years BP) and then possibly going into the Indian Subcontinent (Jwalapuram: 75,000 years BP). Despite the fact that no human remains have yet been found in these three places, the apparent similarities between the stone tools found at Jebel Faya, the ones from Jwalapuram and some African ones suggest that their creators were all modern humans. These findings might give some support to the claim that modern humans from Africa arrived at southern China about 100,000 years BP (Zhiren Cave, Zhirendong, Chongzuo City: 100,000 years BP; and the Liujiang hominid (Liujiang County): controversially dated at 139,000–111,000 years BP). Dating results of the Lunadong (Bubing Basin, Guangxi, southern China) teeth, which include a right upper second molar and a left lower second molar, indicate that the molars may be as old as 126,000 years.
Since these previous exits from Africa did not leave traces in the results of genetic analyses based on the Y chromosome and on MtDNA (which represent only a small part of the human genetic material), it seems that those modern humans did not survive or survived in small numbers and were assimilated by our major antecessors. An explanation for their extinction (or small genetic imprint) may be the Toba catastrophe theory (74,000 years BP). However, some argue that its impact on human population was not dramatic.
According to the Recent African Origin theory a small group of the L3 Haplogroup bearers living in East Africa migrated north east, possibly searching for food or escaping adverse conditions, crossing the Red Sea about 70 millennia ago, and in the process going on to populate the rest of the world. According to some authors, based in the fact that only descents of L3 are found outside Africa, only a few people left Africa in a single migration to a settlement in the Arabian peninsula. From that settlement, some others point to the possibility of several waves of expansion close in time.
OTHER SUPPORTING RESEARCH
BECOMING HUMAN DOCUMENTARY
Who ate the first oyster?
NEW YORK TIMES, 2007
Eating Shellfish Linked to Survival of Early Man
NEW YORK TIMES, 2007
Key Human Traits Tied to Shellfish Remains
THE INDEPENDENT, 2000
Earliest Humans Were Crab Eating Beachcombers
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, 2010
African Cave Yields Earliest Proof of Beach Living