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Archaeologists decide deep sea fishing began 42,000 years ago

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A complete shell fish hook from the Pleistocene

Tuna has been on the menu for a lot longer than we thought. Even 42,000 years ago, the deep-sea dweller wasn’t safe from fishing tackle according to new finds in southeast Asia.

We know that open water was no barrier to travel in the Pleistocene – humans must have crossed hundreds of kilometres of ocean to reach Australia by 50,000 years ago. But while humans had already been pulling shellfish out of the shallows for 100,000 years by that point, the first good evidence of fishing with hooks or spears comes much later – around 12,000 years ago.

The new finds blow that record out of the water. Sue O’Connor at the Australian National University in Canberra and colleagues dug through deposits at the Jerimalai shelter in East Timor. They discovered 38,000 fish bones from 23 different taxa, including tuna and parrotfish that are found only in deep water. Radiocarbon dating revealed the earliest bones were 42,000 years old.

Amidst the fishy debris was a broken fish hook fashioned from shell, which the team dated to between 16,000 and 23,000 years. “This is the earliest known example of a fish hook,” says O’Connor. Another hook, made around 11,000 years ago, was also found…

“There is nothing like this anywhere else in the world,” says Ian McNiven of Monash University in Melbourne, who was not a member of O’Connor’s team. “Maybe this is the crucible for fishing.”

East Timor hosts few large land animals, so early occupants would have needed highly developed fishing skills to survive. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” says O’Connor. “Apart from bats and rats, there’s nothing to eat here…”

Broader patterns of human migration suggest that more evidence of fishing would be found through examining those submerged sites. After leaving Africa around 70,000 years ago, it took modern humans only 20,000 years to skirt around Asia and reach Australia. The journey over land into Europe, although much shorter, took 30,000 years. “Humans appeared to move quite quickly along the coasts,” says McNiven. “Developed fishing skills could have kept them moving.”

Fishing has always seemed the most reliable of protein sources to me. Which is why I would expect humankind to have stuck to shorelines as we advanced into new territory. Expanding inland would have been guided by herd animals – and their migrations. Sustained over seasons in temperate climates by techniques of smoking and drying learned originally from preserving fish.

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Written by Ed Campbell

November 26, 2011 at 10:00 pm

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