Friday, August 7, 2009

The Evolutionary Anthropology of Beachcombing

I have been consumed with frustration in recent days. The principal cause of this has been industrial action by an assortment of trolls who think that holding strikes for pay in a recession, thus holding commuters to ransom, is a good way to improve public relations. I have been tweeting about this with some vigour, but nothing I seem to do in this regard alleviates a pain conditioned by the fact that any and all rage I feel is impotent. We commuters are so powerless...

Luckily I have several emollients at hand. It's always good for the soul to have a huggable pet at hand, or possibly, foot.

A huggable pet, yesterday

Another healthful and psychologically restorative activity is beachcombing: this column is ample evidence that beachcombing is one of my favourite activities. So, yesterday evening, when the sun was setting and most of the terrorists tourists had packed up for the day, Crox Minor and I took Canis croxorum to Cromer East Beach, the Maison Des Girrafes answer to the Sandwalk .

Cromer is, in fact, somewhat depauperate in terms of biodiversity, especially when compared with the rich profusion of life on the Atlantic seaboard. Shells are remarkably scarce: if you find anything at all, it's likely to be a slipper limpet (Crepidula ... er ... fornicata). There, are of course, lots of crabs, both the shore variety (Carcinus maenas) and the edible sort (Cancer pagurus) for which Cromer is famous. Most of what one thinks is seaweed are actually bryozoa, Flustra foliacea, or hornwrack.

This apparent lack of diversity might be more apparent than real. It's all a question of getting your eye in, and after more than two years we're getting rather good at finding things. Yesterday, for example, Crox Minor found this rather dramatic fish jaw (apologies for the low quality - the iPhone has yet to get a macro lens attachment) which as you can see from the scale is rather large. This will be, of course, just the front half of the entire jaw. I guess it's a cod, but that's just a guess.

Meanwhile I picked up this fragment of weed, which is neither bryozoan nor alga but sponge, which I guess is some species of Leucosolenia. You can tell it's a sponge from the pores or oscula at the tips of the branches, and by the fact that this dried-out specimen (collected from above the tideline) feels - well, there's no other way to say this - spongy.

Why is beachcombing so good for the soul? I have an idea about this, connected with human evolution. When Homo sapiens first evolved in Africa around 200,000 years ago, the first thing he did was head for the beach. There is some evidence for this, from Eritrea, and also South Africa. Once at the beach, Homo sapiens found, in shellfish, a kind of food that was nutritious, easy to catch and didn't always need to be cooked. Seaweeds, crabs and other crustaceans and (of course) fishes made up a diet substantially enriched in minerals and essential fatty acids compared with inland diets. It might be no coincidence that the first vague scratchings of human art and culture occur at beach cave-sites such as Blombos in South Africa. When human beings migrated around the world, strandlines provided the easiest routes, never far from sources of food.

Perhaps more fancifully, our ancient roots as beachcombers might explain why we love living by the sea, and millions of people from inland consider a vacation on the beach a perfect place to relax. Why else would people drive or fly at great expense and inconvenience, to a slim strip of sand or shingle next to a body of salty water?

I should stress that I am making no great claims for this idea: scenarios for the early environment of humans and their presumed legacy in people living nowadays generally have a debatable history. On the other hand ...


  1. Fantastic: thanks, Henry. Beachcombing is a deep and emotive thing for me, as I was born in Seattle and grew up on the shores of Lake Superior. There, the big thrills were agates, for which those shores are famous, and smoothed driftwood. I remember too visits to coast-aholic relatives, and seeing giant treetrunks peeled down to their grained interior lying in ranks on an Olympic Peninsula sandspit; sand dollars scattered over Florida beaches; and, the biggest thrill, horseshoe crabs on the Gulf of Mexico--giant spiky ticks with tails (and they are vaguely related to ticks). I too have seen the curious Leucosolenia in England. Dungeness is fabulous: gulls' skulls, surreal-looking fish skeletons. Your theory is entirely believable. What I really know is that combing a beach is one of the best 'trance' activities--an ultra-focused search for the unexpected.

  2. Barb - that's fabulous. It's funny how certain beach treasures get concentrated on particular beaches. Where Cromer has few shellfish, a few miles west at Morston there are Oyster beds sufficiently large to sustain a commercial fishery ... and further west still is Holkham, where you can't move for razor clams. I LOVE beaches.

  3. I thought the fascination with Beachcombing had to do with 12 red-bearded dwarves (H. floresiensis, presumably).

  4. I love beachcombing, but I also equally enjoy wandering around in the bush looking at/for small things (dare I invent a new word bushcombing?) As a wise man once said (I think it was in a SAS survival manual) "there is an awful lot of protein out there if you just lower your standards a bit." I suspect the instinct in question might just be a general foraging one. Perhaps we need a new Scrounging Ape Theory. To make it sound more important the acronym would be SAT. Hmm, sounds very relaxing.

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  6. Henry, a shame it's so difficult to find data on palaeolithic coastal foraging as the sealevels have risen so much. Bone protein analysis such as we did with the Paviland 'Red Lady' reveals that late Pleistocene hunters ate a lot of sea fish.

    I envy the mesolithic diet - and lifestyle - that's for sure.

    It's good to know we share an interest in 'wild food' - I'm very impressed with your samphire pics. My best successes include cockles from Islay (pickled, mmm), puffballs from Arran, various line-caught fish and lobster-potted crabs. There is a glut of fungi at the moment, too; the advantage of a wet August.

    Here are a few books you probably already know but I love 'em:
    Free Food - Richard Mabey
    Mushrooms - Roger Phillips (
    Mushrooms (River Cottage) - John Wright (
    Edible Seashore - John Wright

    Now off to forage for Amanita rubescens in the woods...

    Happy beachcombing!

  7. PS - carsharing may be an answer to the train problems. Liftshare is UK wide, the other is Norfolk.

  8. Steph - thanks for all these tips. We should be more into wild food than we are. However, Crox Minor and I shall be gearing up soon for what promises to be a terrific blackberry (and elderberry) season - and the senior Croxi are big fans of Hugh Fearnleigh-Wossname. We have all the River Cottage series on DVD. Porn for the wannabe-smallholder.

    I shall definitely check out the liftsharing idea...

  9. Hi Henry -

    I am a fellow beachcomber and an anthropologist and was taken with your insights into why beachcombing is so good for the soul. I am just finishing an article entitled The Zen of N: Finding Peace in your N-Spot. It's about how one comes to peace by doing repetitive activities (i.e. beachcombing) in their favorite places in nature. Concentrating on something outside ourselves liberates our minds from the past and the future and puts us right in the here and now...which is refreshing to say the least (and a lot cheaper than Zoloft...) Biblically and evolutionarily, we all began in nature. It is where we belong and when we move too far away from it, we begin to go a little batty (as evidenced in high-tech societies like our own...)

    Then there comes the process of beachcombing/scavaging shorelines for food, building materials etc. from the time of homo erectus on I inclination we should encourage to continue as it is the ultimate in recycling and resourcefulness, no? (Beachcombers also often carry extra bags to collect trash in as well...)

    Deacon R. (