New study shows humans were hunting fish 42,000 years ago


Fish hooks and fishbones dating back 42,000 years found in a cave in East Timor suggest that humans were capable of skilled, deep-sea fishing 30,000 years earlier than previously thought, researchers in Australia and Japan said in Friday’s issue of the journal Science.

Fish appeared in the human diet about 1.9 million years ago. Early catchers waded into freshwater lakes and streams without the need for boats or complex tools. It wasn’t until later that humans decided to ply the ocean in search of fish.

The latest evidence comes from an excavation on the southeast Asian island of East Timor where remains of tuna and other deep-water fish were uncovered inside a cave. Using dating techniques, a team led by archaeologist Susan O’Connor of Australian National University determined the age to be 42,000 years old — making it the earliest evidence for ocean fishing.

The artefacts — nearly 39,000 fishbones and three fish hooks — were found in a limestone cave in Jerimalai in East Timor, 50 metres (165 feet) above sea level, said Sue O’Connor from the Australian National University’s department of archaeology and natural history.

Modern humans were capable of long-distance sea travel 50,000 years ago as they colonised Australia, but evidence of advanced maritime fishing has been rare. Researchers until now have only been able to find evidence of open-ocean fishing up to 12,000 years ago.

O’Connor and her colleagues, who published their findings in the journal Science, found the bones and hooks in a 1 sq metre “test pit” in the cave, 300 metres (985 feet) from the coast.

“All the bones we got inside were just the result of human meals, 40,000 years ago,” said O’Connor. “They were living in that shelter and we are fortunate that all the materials are preserved so well in that limestone cave, which preserves bone and shell really well,” she said. The fish hooks were apparently made from the shells of the Trochus, a large sea snail. “They are very strong shell … we think they just put bait on and dropped the hook in the water from a boat (at the) edge of a reef,” O’Connor said.

The fish bones were traced to 23 species of fish, including tuna, unicornfish, parrotfish, trevallies, triggerfish, snappers, emperors and groupers. “Parrotfish and unicorn were probably caught on baited hooks … but tuna are deepwater, fast-moving fish. Tuna and trevallies were probably caught by lure fishing,” O’Connor said.

Sources: Reuters, AP
Research leader: Susan O’Connor

Featured image credit: Tomb of Usheret © Reuters

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  1. Let’s dissect this article for what it’s worth.

    Thirty-nine thousand various fish bones and three shell-type fish hooks are discovered in a limestone cave 165 vertical feet (I’m guessing) at 985ft from the coastline in East Timor.

    One square meter was exposed (during the excavation) to discover fish skeletal remains and the depth we are unsure of, but it is not important.

    Riddle me this as I propose a few scenarios.

    If I lived near a coastline (which I do) teeming with aquatic life I would certainly want to be close to the ocean as possible when it comes to launching a boat(s), using nets or fishing by hand. That stated, the bones were discovered 165ft (vertical?) in a limestone cave and 985ft from the coastline. That, to me, seems to be a lot of work to haul fish from the coastline to a limestone cave. To this day human beings still leave in huts along the coastline and close to their food source even though industrialization has aided man greatly with mechanized transport.

    Another thought to consider would be Orogenesis where the coastline during that time period was closer to the limestone cave shortening and or eliminating distances of travel to and from the limestone cave, but no mentioned by the researchers was made in the studied article.

    Another consideration would be not much has changed for east Timor and that a mind-shattering tidal force rose forcing aquatic life remains into the cave where the debris eventually settled and solidified in the soil.

    There are many caves throughout the world discovered with layers of fish bones and mammal bones into the millions of pieces at higher elevations where ‘scientist’ claim the bones were placed there by humans yet there is little evidence or trace of those humans to be found.

    The article made no mention of man-made tools or markings by tools on the skeletal remains of the fish bones. Keep in mind that the vertebrae of tuna can be very large and require in this day and age forged tools to properly clean a fish. If they were capable of designing fish hooks from shells then the had the ability to remove scales and other fish parts with primitive tools, too.

    I’m curious to know if the skeletal remains of the fish were discovered intact or dismembered and scattered throughout the limestone cave.

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