Oct 17, 2021

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Fish have long been an important part of human diets, but it has been difficult to study the history of the technology humans have used to acquire fish, partly because early fishing gear was made from perishable materials like wood and plant fibers. Humans who went to make a catch for dinner did not hang out a sign “Gone Fishing!” But in a new German study, a team examined a collection of fishing hooks and stones from the archaeological site of Jordan River Dureijat in northern Israel that is at least 12,000 years old.

A reconstruction of a hook & small grooved pebble on a line. note the sophisticated knot (CREDIT: Emanuela Cristiani)

Humans in the Middle East were using complex fishing tools and techniques in that era, according to a study published under the title “Early line and hook fishing at the Epipaleolithic site of Jordan River Dureijat (Northern Israel)”  in the open-access journal [US] Public Library of Science (PLOS ONE) by Dr, Antonella Pedergnana of the Archaeological Research Centre and Museum for Human Behavioral Evolution in Mainz, Germany and colleagues.

The study of the fish hooks reveals significant variability in hook size, shape and feature type and provides the first evidence that several landmark innovations in fishing technology were already in use at this early date.

The team analyzed the shape and residues of 19 bone fish hooks, as well as six grooved pebbles that appear to have been used as sinkers, altogether one of the largest collections of early fishing technology. Plant fiber residue on the hooks and stones indicate the use of fishing line, and the wide variety of hook shapes, including multiple arrangements of barbs and multiple methods for attaching hook to line, reflect their utility for catching a variety of fish. 

Wear on the grooved stones is consistent with their use as sinkers while plant fibers recovered from the grooves of one hook shank and one stone suggest the use of fishing line. This together with associations between the grooved stones and hooks in the same archaeological layers, suggests the emergence of a sophisticated line and hook technology. Grooved lines and fiber residues on the bends of some hooks also indicate the use of artificial lures.

This study identifies some of the earliest evidence of complex fishing technology. The use of lures and a wide variety of hook shapes suggests the humans of this time were not only hunting a broad spectrum of fish, but also that they had profound knowledge of fish behavior and ecology. These innovations coincide with broader patterns in human subsistence evolution which mark the beginning of the transition to agriculture in this region of the world.

The authors added: “Except for the use of metal and plastic, modern fishing has not invented anything new since the Natufian era. A look at the JRD fishing gear reveals that all fishing techniques and knowledge already existed some 13,000 years ago. The finds highlight the importance of aquatic resources for the emergence of sedentism and the Neolithic life ways in the Levant.”