Archaeologist finds world's oldest funereal fish hooks

Archaeologist finds world’s oldest funereal fish hooks
The skeletal remains and fish hooks. Credit: ANU

An archaeologist from The Australian National University (ANU) has uncovered the world's oldest known fish-hooks placed in a burial ritual, found on Indonesia's Alor Island, northwest of East Timor.

The five fish hooks were among items carefully placed under the chin, and around the jaws of a female from the Pleistocene era, dating back 12,000 years.

Distinguished Professor Sue O'Connor from the School of Culture, History and Language in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific said the discovery turns on its head the theory that most fishing activities on these were carried out by men.

"These are the oldest known fish-hooks associated with mortuary practices from anywhere in the world and perhaps indicate that fishing equipment was viewed as essential for transition to the afterlife in this area," Professor O'Connor said.

"The discovery shows that in both life and death, the Pleistocene inhabitants of the Alor Island region were intrinsically connected to the sea, and the association of the fish-hooks with a burial denotes the cosmological status of fishing in this island environment."

Prior to the find, the earliest fish-hooks associated with a burial site date back only about 9,000 years and were found in a river environment of the Mesolithic era in Siberia, known as the Ershi cemetery.

ANU archaeologist finds world's oldest funereal fish hooks
The fish hooks removed from the Alor burial once cleaned. Credit: ANU

Professor O'Connor said in a maritime context, the earliest burials with fish-hooks are from Oman, where rotating fish-hooks made of pearl shell have been dated to about 6,000 years ago.

Older fish hooks from Japan, Europe and East Timor date back as far as 22,000 years, but they were not related to burial rites.

In the Alor Island find, two different types of fish-hooks were buried - a J-Shaped hook and four circular rotating hooks fashioned from the shell of a species of sea-snail.

Professor O'Connor said the appearance of the Alor rotating so early on a disconnected island suggests that several fishing communities developed the same technology separately, rather than learning from each other through contact.

ANU archaeologist finds world's oldest funereal fish hooks
Map of Alor. Credit: ANU

"The Alor hooks bear an uncanny resemblance to rotating hooks used in Japan, Australia, Arabia, California, Chile, Mexico and Oceania," she said.

"We argue that the same sort of artefact was developed independently because it was the most fitting form to suit the ecology, rather than through cultural diffusion."

Professor O'Connor's findings were published in the Cambridge University Press journal Antiquity.


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Journal information: Antiquity

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Dec 11, 2017
"We argue that the same sort of artefact was developed independently because it was the most fitting form to suit the ecology, rather than through cultural diffusion."

To tell you the truth, I can see this writer's viewpoint. There is much too little evidence (to date) of dispersal of ideas across the globe during that period.

At this point, I guess the conclusions in this article have a reasonable probability of being correct. But, I wouldn't say it's 100% proven.

However, considering the time span and that it seems a lot of unexpected travel and trade were along the coastlines and up rivers and lakes? I wouldn't rule out dispersal/trade of technology just quite yet.

Perhaps it was a combination of local invention and dispersal?

Even today, somebody, somewhere else, was inspired to genius. And for years, generations after, other people take that original vision and develop novel ideas of their own.

Dec 11, 2017
Fishing societies, simply by virtue of their use of water craft, are far more mobile than other groups and can travel immense distances when driven by storms and trade winds. In a time when people made most of their own equipment I really don't see the reason for denying the possibility of cultural diffusion. People were eating deep sea fish like tuna at least 40,000 years ago, and 60,000 years ago some people were accomplished enough seafarers to colonize Australia. A rotating hook is not something that's terribly obvious except in hindsight, it's far more likely to have traveled than to have been invented multiple times, in my own opinion.

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