Gone fishing? We have for 42,000 years

November 25, 2011, Australian National University

Many caves and rockshelter - such as Jerimalai - are located in the uplifted Pleistocene limestone terraces at the east end of East Timor.
(PhysOrg.com) -- An archaeologist from The Australian National University has uncovered the world’s oldest evidence of deep sea fishing for big fish, showing that 42,000 years ago our regional ancestors had mastered one of our nation’s favourite pastimes.

Professor Sue O’Connor of the College of Asia and the Pacific at ANU, also found the world’s earliest recorded fish hook in her excavations at a site in East Timor. The results of this work are published in the latest issue of Science.

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.

“The site that we studied featured more than 38,000 fish bones from 2,843 individual fish dating back 42,000 years,” said Professor O’Connor.

“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.”

Professor O’Connor also uncovered the world’s oldest fish hook, which dates from a later period.

“We found a fish hook, made from a shell, which dates to between 23,000 and 16,000 years ago. This is, we believe, the earliest known example of a fish hook and shows that our ancestors were skilled crafts people as well as fishers.  The hooks don’t seem suitable for pelagic fishing, but it is possible that other types of hooks were being made at the same time.”

What’s still unknown is how these ancient people were able to catch these fast-moving deep-ocean fish.

“It’s not clear what method the occupants of Jerimalai used to capture the pelagic fish or even the shallow water species. But tuna can be caught in purse seines or leader nets, or by using hooks and trolling. Simple fish aggregating devices such as tethered logs can also be used to attract them. So they may have been caught using hooks or nets. Either way it seems certain that these people were using quite sophisticated technology and watercraft to fish offshore,” said Professor O’Connor.

She added that this may shed light on how Australia’s first inhabitants arrived on the continent.

“We have known for a long time that Australia’s ancient ancestors must have been able to travel hundreds of kilometres by sea because they reached Australia by at least 50,000 years ago. We also know that they used boats because Australia was separated from Southeast Asia by ocean throughout the human time span.  When we look at the watercraft that Indigenous Australians used at the time of European contact, however, they are all very simple, like rafts and canoes. So how people got here at such an early date has always been puzzling. These new finds from Jerimalai cave go a long way to solving the puzzle,” said Professor O’Connor.

Explore further: Study reveals secret sex life of fish

Related Stories

Study reveals secret sex life of fish

February 22, 2006

Scientists have long thought of deep-sea pelagic fish as nomadic wanderers, but now they suspect the fish may be meeting at ridges or seamounts to spawn.

Tuna nearly fished to extinction

September 15, 2005

Australian officials say one of that nation's most valuable fish -- the southern bluefin tuna -- is facing extinction.

New fishing hook reduces shark catch

June 8, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Scientists have developed a new type of fishing hook to reduce the number of sharks accidently caught from commercial fishing. The special hook, called SMART Hook (Selective Magnetic and Repellent-Treated ...

Fishy behaviour

October 4, 2011

A fish's personality may determine how it is captured. This association between personality difference and capture-technique could have significant evolutionary and ecological consequences for affected fish populations, as ...

Eleven-foot 'giant herring' found off Sweden

May 12, 2010

A "giant herring" measuring 3.5 metres (11.4 feet) has been discovered off Sweden's western coast -- the first such fish found in the Scandinavian country in more than 130 years, a maritime museum said Tuesday.

Recommended for you


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (9) Nov 25, 2011

What exactly does this mean? If there were people there and we can see their remains or remains of their actions, then is this not part of history?
3.5 / 5 (8) Nov 25, 2011
It means before written history, check a dictionary, silly.

Every 'oldest' fossil or artifact found, is definitely not the oldest that lived/was made. I'd be surprised if people weren't fishing with hooks more than twice as long ago as those fish-bones are old.
4 / 5 (1) Nov 25, 2011
by about 65,000 years ago Australia was populated by enough people to have been at least part of the cause of the extinction of the large animals -
that follows the massive eruption of Mount Toba - most of the ash was blown north -
it was a powerful incentive to take to the boats and head south - and indicative that people around there could build boats which could take them safely across a sea which although not that wide was very deep with strong currents, and inhabited by sharks, crocodiles and poisonous jelly fish -
5 / 5 (2) Nov 25, 2011
" ... however, they are all very simple, like rafts and canoes."

Long-distance travel by raft or canoe is largely a matter of navigation. That in turn was knowledge of currents, tides and wind which was common in populations on islands and along coasts.
5 / 5 (4) Nov 25, 2011
Gone fishing? We have for 42,000 years

It certainly seems that long when you've been out there for half an hour.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.