November 25, 2011

42,000-year old fishermen from East Timor

From the New Scientist:
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."

"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.
Those Upper Paleolithic people never cease to amaze.

Science 25 November 2011:
Vol. 334 no. 6059 pp. 1117-1121
DOI: 10.1126/science.1207703

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.



Pascvaks said...

The problem of digging a deep hole is analyzing all those grains of sand and pieces of bio-matter wedged between the grains. The only 'visable' piece of the nets would be special rocks used to weight the net. I think Desmond Morris was very right to put so much emphesis on our relationship with the sea back in 1967 (The Naked Ape); water is a hard Task Master, but a great Teacher.

terryt said...

"Those Upper Paleolithic people never cease to amaze".

But this is very much a localised affair. In fact you quote the comment:

"'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.'"

Really no real surprises here. We know people reached Australia some time about 50,000 years ago, and it seems most likely they crossed from Timor using boats. Presumably they would have developed these boats for fishing.

Pascvaks said...

"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."

This makes no sense. Why would anyone even think that the 'crucible for fishing' was in East Timor? Why? These people traveled via beach routes, why is East Timor so special?

terryt said...

"Why would anyone even think that the 'crucible for fishing' was in East Timor? Why?"

I agree that it is doubtful Timor is the ''crucible for fishing' but it is quite likely it is the crucible for fishing from boats.

"These people traveled via beach routes"

It is extremely doubtful that humans traveled all the way from Africa to Timor along the beaches. Beaches have no doubt been utilised only where the hinterland has been appropriate.

"why is East Timor so special?"

Becaus people have to use boats to even get there from mainland SE Asia.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

"why is East Timor so special?"

It is over the Wallace line, so it is one of the few places inhabited by pre-Austronesians that was never connected by land to Eurasia in modern human history. But, unlike Australia and New Guinea, which were sufficiently distant from other land to make the migration there pretty much a one way trip (in part because you can't make those trips without losing sight of land), Timor remained in contact with the rest of Eurasia more or less continously from the time that it was first inhabited (you can travel by boat from Timor to Asia and to lots of other deep water without ever losing sight of land).

Pascvaks said...

@terryt & Andrew Oh-Willeke --

Thank you both!

Under the impression humans would have run into situations long before East Timor that would have prompted them out to sea. Sight of land is a definite limitation; unless you're hit by a storm or running away with the Chief's daughter:-).

This link would seem to put East Timor in the 'one' in a thousand category.