A team of international researchers, including UNSW archaeologist Dr Andy Herries, has shown that the earliest humans may have been a sophisticated lot who decorated their bodies, used advanced stone tools and enjoyed seafood.

Landmark research gathered from a cave on the South African coast has provided a rare glimpse into the minds of the earliest humans Homo Sapiens. It was published this week in the prestigious science journal Nature.

The research shows that around 164 thousand years ago, Homo Sapiens were using pigment ochre - possibly for body decoration - wielded quite advanced stone tools and enjoyed meals of shellfish and other seafood.

Dr Herries, from the Human Origins Group in the School of Medical Sciences and one of the reports authors, says it is usually difficult to get into the mind of early people and find out what they were thinking.

"This is the first evidence we have of them thinking about things other than practicalities. It shows that 164,000 years ago people were thinking symbolically and they were thinking more like we do.

"Pigment doesn't occur in a cave naturally, so they were bringing it in. They also ground it up, so it shows they were using it for some purpose," he says. "We think it may have been used for body decoration."

The researchers, who were working on the cave for four years, made two other discoveries. They found the first evidence that people used a type of stone tool techonology, known as 'bladelets' that were associated with much more recent populations, some 100,000 years later.

"This is also the first evidence we have of early humans eating seafood and shellfish, including the scavenging of whale carcasses," says Dr Herries.

"That's significant because it would have allowed them to migrate along the coast and maintain a stable source of food. They would no longer have needed to follow herds of animals.

"This may have helped them to rapidly colonise new areas. In particular it represents the start of marine exploitation that would have eventually led modern humans to move out of Africa and colonise areas of the world such as Australia".

Genetic and fossil evidence suggests that modern humans arose in Africa and spread from there roughly 100,000 years ago. This is known as the 'Out of Africa' hypothesis. This discovery lends further weight to this theory and suggests that modern human behaviour arose early in southern Africa and close to the biological emergence of modern humans.

Dr Herries is one of 14 international researchers on the paper.