Earliest Fish Hook Found

The day after Thanksgiving 2011, while we were all still stuffed with turkey, Science published an article by O’Conner et al. suggesting that pelagic fish may have been on the dinner table long before we thought.  It’s accepted that humans traveled the high seas as long as 50,000 years ago—they would have needed to colonize places where we now find their artifacts.  However, archaeological evidence of fishing generally represents shallow species and is scant prior to 12,000 years ago. Until recently.

Ancient net fishermen (Source: Ehud Galili, Baruch Rosen/International Journal of Nautical Archaeology)

Excavating from two 1 x 1 m pits in East Timor (Jerimalai shelter, to be exact), researchers unearthed
 evidence of pelagic fishing possibly dating back to 42,000 years ago. The pits were loaded with faunal remains (i.e., fish bones), as well as evidence for the first fish hooks ever reported. Once all the bones were classified as best as possible, the minimum number of fish individuals was calculated to be 796, which was represented by 23 taxa—22 families and 1 species. Ancient people caught and ate fish—so what? The real finding was that 16% of the minimum number of individual fish were identified as tuna, an offshore, pelagic species that, to ancient cultures, represented a much harder catch than the traditional inshore reef fish. Other taxa identified in the remains included parrotfish, trevallies, triggerfish, grouper, sharks, and snappers.

Jerimalai shelter excavation site (Source: http://www.theage.com.au)

As far back as the earliest cultural phase the researchers examined (42,000–38,000 years ago) the proportion of pelagic to inshore species was nearly equal at 50%.  These proportions changed over the millennia—in the direction of increasing catches of inshore species and decreasing catches of pelagics—but pelagic species never represent less than a quarter of the species excavated. The authors note that the conclusions are drawn from limited excavation (sampling), which may impact the true proportions, but that sea level, water temperature, and other factors may have driven species abundances that are reflected in their findings.

Oldest known fish hook (Source: O’Conner et al. 2011, Science)

The report makes the claim to have discovered the earliest manufactured hook, dating to as old as 23,000 years. While this is of great importance, it doesn’t explain how the offshore fish were harvested  prior to use of the hook. The answer is likely nets. Although no evidence of netting has been discovered (presumably not as preservable as the hooks and bones), it is inferred from the fact that fishing line, which could double as netting, would have been used to operate the hooks. These early nets could have been fashioned into purse seines or leader nets to capture tunas. Additionally, the bone evidence suggests that the harvested individuals were small and likely more susceptible to early net technology.

Check out the full article:
O’Connor, S., Rintaro, O., and C. Clarkson.  2011.  Pelagic Fishing at 42,000 Years Before the Present and the Maritime Skills of Modern Humans. Science 334:1117–1121.

Steve Midway

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