25 November 2011


Beach at Tutuala, East Timor. Credit: doug.deep Doug Anderson via Flickr.
A new paper in Science reports on 42,000-year-old fish bones found in Jerimalai cave on the island of East Timor, just north of Australia. 

This is the oldest evidence yet of human fishing activity. Even more interesting, about half the 38,000 bones were of fast-swimming pelagic species—tuna and shark—implying the ancient fishers worked offshore from vessels.

Credit: Froschmann : かえるおとこ H Aoki via Flickr.

We know that people were seafaring 50,000 years ago. And seafaring and fishing are inextricably linked. But until now hard evidence of pelagic fishing was lacking. From Science Now:

Although modern humans were exploiting near-shore resources, such as mussels and abalone, by 165,000 years ago, only a few controversial sites suggest that our early ancestors fished deep waters by 45,000 years ago. The earliest sure sites are only about 12,000 years old.
What's not known is exactly how these first fishers in East Timor caught open-water species. The researchers speculate they went to sea on boats or rafts equipped with nets or hooks-and-lines.
A broken shell fishhook found in East Timor. Scale is in millimeters. Credit: Sue O’Connor, et al. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.1207703. 
At Jerimalai the archaeologists also found the earliest known fish hooks—including one from a mollusk shell dating to 23,000 years ago. These hooks were too small to catch the pelagic species, so were likely used inshore. 

Prior to these findings, the oldest fish hooks dated to the beginning of agriculture, or about 5,500 years ago in Southeast Asia. 

Fisher, East Timor. Credit: United Nations Photo via Flickr.

The paper:

  • Sue O’Connor, Rintaro Ono, Chris Clarkson. Pelagic Fishing at 42,000 Years Before the Present and the Maritime Skills of Modern Humans. Science. 2011. DOI: 10.1126/science.1207703

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