Seasonal availability of edible underground and aboveground carbohydrate resources to human foragers on the Cape south coast, South Africa

Jan C. De Vynck, Richard M. Cowling, Alastair J. Potts, Curtis Marean

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

12 Scopus citations


The coastal environments of South Africa's Cape Floristic Region (CFR) provide some of the earliest and most abundant evidence for the emergence of cognitively modern humans. In particular, the south coast of the CFR provided a uniquely diverse resource base for hunter-gatherers, which included marine shellfish, game, and carbohydrate-bearing plants, especially those with Underground Storage Organs (USOs). It has been hypothesized that these resources underpinned the continuity of human occupation in the region since the Middle Pleistocene. Very little research has been conducted on the foraging potential of carbohydrate resources in the CFR. This study focuses on the seasonal availability of plants with edible carbohydrates at six-weekly intervals over a two-year period in four vegetation types on South Africa's Cape south coast. Different plant species were considered available to foragers if the edible carbohydrate was directly (i.e. aboveground edible portions) or indirectly (above-ground indications to below-ground edible portions) visible to an expert botanist familiar with this landscape. A total of 52 edible plant species were recorded across all vegetation types. Of these, 33 species were geophytes with edible USOs and 21 species had aboveground edible carbohydrates. Limestone Fynbos had the richest flora, followed by Strandveld, Renosterveld and lastly, Sand Fynbos. The availability of plant species differed across vegetation types and between survey years. The number of available USO species was highest for a six-month period from winter to early summer (Jul-Dec) across all vegetation types. Months of lowest species' availability were in midsummer to early autumn (Jan-Apr); the early winter (May-Jun) values were variable, being highest in Limestone Fynbos. However, even during the late summer carbohydrate "crunch," 25 carbohydrate bearing species were visible across the four vegetation types. To establish a robust resource landscape will require additional spatial mapping of plant species abundances. Nonetheless, our results demonstrate that plant-based carbohydrate resources available to Stone Age foragers of the Cape south coast, especially USOs belonging to the Iridaceae family, are likely to have comprised a reliable and nutritious source of calories over most of the year.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1679
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2016



  • Cape Floristic Region
  • Cognitively modern humans
  • Edible fruit
  • Fynbos
  • Geophytes
  • Hunter-gatherers
  • Renosterveld
  • Strandveld
  • Underground storage organs

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Medicine(all)
  • Neuroscience(all)

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