STIAS Lecture: Prof Curtis W Marean

You are hereby cordially invited to attend the third public STIAS lecture of 2012. This presents an opportunity to SU researchers and students, as well as members of the public, to learn more about the STIAS programme.

On this occasion Prof Curtis W Marean Institute of Human Origins, Arizona State University will present a talk with the title: Survivors on the Edge of Land and Sea: Modern Human Origins and How Coastal Life Helped Make Us Unique.

Date: Wednesday, 13 June 2012
Time: 18:00
Venue: Auditorium, STIAS Wallenberg Research Centre, Marais Street, Stellenbosch

  • Please note that the time and venue differ from the usual arrangements for STIAS lectures. Attendance is free, but requires that you individually reserve a seat. Please contact Felicia McDonald at 021 808 2581 or

We look forward to welcoming you at this event – not to be missed!

The lineage that leads to modern humans appeared between 200,000 and 150,000 years ago in Africa during a long harsh cold period in earth’s climate. Food was scarce and populations small. Many human lineages around the world went extinct while those that tapped the unique human abilities to be creative, rapidly advance technology, and eliminate competitors survived.

In the Cape of South Africa a unique confluence of rich resources on the land and sea, both immune to the harsh climates posed by a glacial earth, provided the ideal refuge for the modern human lineage. Ethnographic and archaeological data from around the world shows that the rich and predictable nature of a coastal cuisine leads to behaviors and cultural complexity unusual for hunter-gatherers, but those selfsame resource characteristics lead to heightened levels of intergroup violence.

I suggest that this stable and predictable resource base may have led to unusually cooperative inter-group behaviors at the origin point of our lineage, creating a new highly prosocial species that excelled at expanding its range at the expense of its sister lineages. This coastal adaptation forged the modern human adaptation we see among us today. It resulted in the modern human blitzkrieg of Eurasia, the quiet elimination of all our competitors, resulting in a lonely species that can now only look to the stars for a worthy competitor or companion.

Curtis W Marean received his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley in 1990, and is now associate director of the Institute of Human Origins in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University. His research interests focus on the origins of modern humans, the prehistory of Africa, the study of animal bones from archaeological sites, and climates and environments of the past. In the area of the origins of modern humans, he is particularly interested in questions about foraging strategies, for example when humans became effective hunters of large antelope, and the timing and processes underlying the evolution of modern human behavior. Dr Marean has a special interest in human occupation of grassland and coastal ecosystems, and the role people play in the form of these ecosystems.

Dr Marean conducts a variety of studies using zooarchaeology, the study of animal bones, and taphonomy, the study of how bones become fossils. He also is a dedicated field researcher and has conducted fieldwork in Kenya, Tanzania, and Somalia, and since 1991 has focused his field efforts in coastal South Africa. He is the principal investigator for the South African Coast Paleoclimate, Paleoenvironment, Paleoecology, Paleoanthropology (SACP4) project based around Mossel Bay in South Africa. The goal of this large international project, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Hyde Family Foundation, is to develop a complete climatic and environmental curve for southern Africa spanning 400 000 to 30 000 years ago. This will have implications for our understanding of modern human origins, but also will inform us on the response of terrestrial ecosystems to potential long-term climate change, and thus be directly relevant to the future of humanity in the light of future climatic shifts.