The new finds blow that record out of the water. Sue O'Connor at the Australian National University in Canberra and colleagues dug through deposits at the Jerimalai shelter in East Timor. They discovered 38,000 fish bones from 23 different taxa, including tuna and parrotfish that are found only in deep water. Radiocarbon dating revealed the earliest bones were 42,000 years old.
Amidst the fishy debris was a broken fish hook fashioned from shell, which the team dated to between 16,000 and 23,000 years. "This is the earliest known example of a fish hook," says O'Connor. Another hook, made around 11,000 years ago, was also found.
Sandra Bowdler at the University of Western Australia in Perth, who was not involved in the study, is convinced that those colonising East Timor 42,000 years ago had "fully formed" fishing skills. "By this time, modern humans are assumed to have the same mental capacities as today," she says.
"There is nothing like this anywhere else in the world," says Ian McNiven of Monash University in Melbourne, who was not a member of O'Connor's team. "Maybe this is the crucible for fishing."
From Adelaide Now:
Those Upper Paleolithic people never cease to amaze.
"The fish hooks appear at 20,000 years ago, but we do have literally thousands of bones from tuna, large tuna 50cm or more in size, which is a species not readily caught from the shore," he said.
"Really you have to be out in boats ... We don't know how they were caught, these earliest tuna ... It could be that people were using fish hooks 42,000 years old, we just don't know."
The research paper draws on archaeological research from Southeast Asia and Oceania, which suggests "the parrotfish and unicornfish would likely have been caught by netting or spearing, whereas trevallies, triggerfish, snappers, emperors, and groupers are most commonly captured by angling using a baited hook".
While the single-piece baited hooks do not seem suitable for pelagic fishing, the study authors suggest other types of hooks would have developed at the same time.
Some of the fish bones were scarred with marks that could have been made by fine barbs for fish spears, or complex hooks used for trolling.
So far, no artefacts related to netting have been recovered, but the manufacture of strong fibre line is implied by the hooks.
Science 25 November 2011:
Vol. 334 no. 6059 pp. 1117-1121
Pelagic Fishing at 42,000 Years Before the Present and the Maritime Skills of Modern Humans
Sue O’Connor1, Rintaro Ono2, Chris Clarkson3
By 50,000 years ago, it is clear that modern humans were capable of long-distance sea travel as they colonized Australia. However, evidence for advanced maritime skills, and for fishing in particular, is rare before the terminal Pleistocene/early Holocene. Here we report remains of a variety of pelagic and other fish species dating to 42,000 years before the present from Jerimalai shelter in East Timor, as well as the earliest definite evidence for fishhook manufacture in the world. Capturing pelagic fish such as tuna requires high levels of planning and complex maritime technology. The evidence implies that the inhabitants were fishing in the deep sea.