Anthropological research is giving new meaning to the phrase "it runs in the family."

Evidence of early humans living in southern Africa has painted a picture of our ancestors as essentially modern.

An international team of scientists led by Arizona State University professor Curtis Marean carried out the research. Their paper, published this week in the journal Nature, cites evidence that describes the lifestyle and capabilities of humans living 164,000 years ago. 9Team member Tom Minichillo, a UW affiliate professor of anthropology, explained how evidence discovered in coastal caves shows how similar early humans are to people living today.

"All evidence points toward their abilities and capacities being like ours," Minichillo said. "They wouldn't have behaved just like us, as their social structures were much simpler."

The findings fall in the middle of a well-known gap in the archeological record, between 200,000 and 125,000 years ago. During that period, Africa was in the midst of the Pleistocene, an epoch that featured giant versions of animals that populate the continent today.

"It would be a very alien world to you and me," Minichillo said.

There are three categories of deposits found at the site that indicate modern human behavior.

"The group living at the site we excavated systematically collected and ate shellfish," Minichillo said. "They made mineral pigments from red ochre for painting, and possessed various sizes of stone tools."

He went on to describe the implications of the discoveries.

"This evidence suggests that they had a varied diet, expressed themselves with symbols and had a wide skill set for making tools, all essentially modern," Minichillo said. "We're having to reconsider prevailing assumptions about early Homo sapiens."

Scientists have debated the timing and nature of the development of modern human behavior for decades.

The popular model holds that it occurred approximately 50,000 years ago.

UW professor of anthropology, Angela Close said the new research has helped to clarify our understanding of early humans.

"There has been a concept that Homo sapiens became behaviorally modern 50,000 years ago, relatively recently," Close said. "This evidence pushes back that date. As far as we can tell, humans were modern in all respects 164,000 years ago."

Research is ongoing across the continent. Marean's team is no exception.

"Africa is an enormous place," Close said. "The fossil record is still very thin. Studies in early behavior throughout eastern and southern portions of the continent are all the rage."

Both Minichillo and Close said research would continue to set modern humans in context with our ancient ancestors.

"There is recent genetic research comparing DNA from ancient populations to humans living today," Minichillo said. "We should compare the various populations in the ancient world with each other. That's going to be big."

[Reach reporter Brian Smoliak at]

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