Earliest Evidence of Offshore Fishing

This article discusses evidence found off Timor that humans went offshore after fish a long long time ago. I’ve always thought humans were capable seafarers right from the start, I mean, the very start. It’s not an easy thing, to head offshore miles after fish in deep water, but people did it tens of thousands of years ago. This leads me, at least, to think that humans traveled all over the word along the coasts well before overland.  Marine conditions can be bad, but if I had to choose between wandering the uplands being stalked by short face bears, dire wolves, saber tooth cats, and huge lions, or heading to sea in a well made big canoe, with line and some hooks for food, I know what I’d do. What wuld you do?

Oldest evidence for deep-sea fishing found

The world’s oldest evidence of deep sea fishing has been discovered by an Australian research team, showing that our regional ancestors mastered the skill some 42,000 years ago.


Example of one of the shell fishhooks found. Credit: Sue O’Connor

Jerimalai cave

The Jerimalai cave in East Timor. Credit: Sue O’Connor

FAREHAM: The world’s oldest evidence of deep sea fishing has been discovered by an Australian research team, showing that our regional ancestors mastered the skill some 42,000 years ago.

For decades archaeologists have wondered about the maritime skills that early humans possessed when they reached Australia by sea 50,000 years ago. Now, Sue O’Connor and her team from the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra have reported the earliest evidence that these first colonists were skilled at pelagic, or deep sea, fishing.

The team excavated Jerimalai cave in East Timor, uncovering thousands of well-preserved animal and fish bones as well as stone tools and shell beads. They also discovered the world’s oldest fishhook, made from a shell and dating back to between 23,000 and 16,000 years ago.

“We believe this is the earliest known example of a fishhook and shows that our ancestors were skilled crafts people as well as fishermen. The hooks don’t seem suitable for deep sea fishing, but it is possible that other types of hooks were being made at the same time,” said O’Connor, lead author of the study published in the current issue of Science.

Fish on the menu

O’Connor’s team found more than 38,000 fish bones from 2,843 individual fish during the excavation. They showed that fish was the staple diet of the earliest dwellers of Jerimalai, making up 56% of the animal remains uncovered and the majority of the fish bones were from deep-sea species such as tuna. Other fish on our ancestors’ menu included parrotfish, groupers, triggerfish and snappers. There is also evidence that they ate sharks, marine turtles and a wide range of shellfish.

“What the site in East Timor has shown us is that early modern humans in Island Southeast Asia had amazingly advanced maritime skills. They were expert at catching the types of fish that would be challenging even today – fish like tuna. It’s a very exciting find,” said O’Connor.

What’s still unknown is how these ancient people were able to catch these fast-moving deep-ocean fish, but it is clear that they were using sophisticated technology and watercraft to fish offshore.

“These discoveries provide important evidence that the earliest colonisers of Australia had advanced knowledge and skills in stone, bone and wood technology,” commented Nina Kononenko from the University of Sydney. “They were able to build reliable water-crafts, manufacture fishing gears and other tools, as well as items for their subsistence and maritime adaptation as early as 40,000 to 45,000 years ago.”

Solving an enduring puzzle

The team’s findings also indicate that the proportion of deep-sea fish in the diet steadily declined over the millennia, making up just 24% of the total by 5,500 years ago, implying that this type of fishing became less common over time.

These findings may also help shed light on how Australia’s ancient ancestors originally arrived on the continent. It has long puzzled archaeologists that the boats used by indigenous people in Australia when the first Europeans made contact were very simple rafts and canoes. How did they make sure a daunting crossing using such simple boats? The research suggests that the early colonists had advanced maritime skills and technology when they arrived, but that these were gradually lost. “In Timor there was very little in the way of large land-dwelling fauna for the early colonists to eat – mostly rats and bats, snakes and small lizards – so this could have honed their maritime skills,” O’Connor said.

“But the sites that were on the coast 50,000 – 40,000 years ago became submerged as sea level rose at the end of the Pleistocene. And, when they settled, the early Australians would have found a wealth of marsupial fauna – an easier food source than deep-sea fish. So perhaps coastal resources would not have been as attractive to them and over time people lost their maritime skills.”

Capacity to invent technologies

The finds from the Jerimalai cave site demonstrate that 42,000 years ago our regional ancestors had high-level maritime skills, and by implication the technology needed to make the ocean crossings to reach Australia. It also helps to show how modern humans may have travelled to the Sahul, the landmass that was made up of Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Aru Islands during the Pleistocene epoch.

This is a very exciting find indeed,” said Nick Barton, professor in palaeolithic archaeology at the University of Oxford in England. “It provides some of the oldest tangible evidence for sea fishing using line anywhere in the world and offers growing support for an early southern route into the Sahul by seafaring modern humans. It also stokes the current controversy over Homo floresiensis. Why did modern humans apparently not use Flores as a stepping stone island en route to Australia?”

“The humble fish hook discovered by the ANU team is testimony to the extraordinary capacity of our direct ancestors to invent technologies and develop new behaviours to deal with unfamiliar environments as they encountered them,” added Graeme Barker, professor of archaeology at the University of Cambridge in England. “This ‘adaptive plasticity’ appears to have been the main reason why they were able to out-compete other hominin species, such as the Neanderthals of Europe and the ‘Hobbits’ of Flores, so successfully.”

More information:
Original paper in Science

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