How did humans learn to fish? When did humans first go fishing? Humans spread across the world to inhabit most of the land-based ecosystems and adapt to locally available foods as hunter-gatherers. Joseph Henrich (2016) calls us a cultural species because we began learning in such a way that culture became cumulative. As he explains, culture evolves as we acquire tastes and learning biases that shape what each person pays attention to, remembers, and passes on. As cultures, we learned how to fish. Humans began fishing at different times and with differing methods.
|Dispersal of early humans during the upper Paleolithic (Metspulu et al. 2004) by D. Bachmann, CC-SA 4.0|
When did humans first go fishing? We know that humans have fished for sustenance and subsistence for a long time. The following dates come from the work of numerous archaeologists working in ancient garbage heaps (Kerch and Dye 1979), but the record is spotty. Homo habilis captured fishes as early as 1,900,000 to 800,000 years BP with little technology in East African lakes and rivers. Homo erectus collected fish and shellfish in Indonesia and Homo sapiens began to invent specialized fishing technology over 100,000 years BP. Stone Age burial heaps in Africa contained harpoons, spears, fish bones, and a wide range of terrestrial animals dated from 90,000 to 75,000 years BP (Sahrhage and Lundbeck 1992; Robbins et al. 1994; Henshilwood et al. 2001; Pitcher and Lam 2015). Paleolithic humans captured fish, mussels, oysters, and crustaceans by hand. Molluscs were a very important food source for early human colonists in the Pacific Islands (Dalzell 1998). In southern Africa, bones of Clarias sp. catfish and Serranochromis sp. cichlid fish and barbed bone points suggest that freshwater fish were speared for more than 40,000 years (Robbins et al. 1994).
|Fish hooks of broken shells from O'Connor et al. (2011).|
One study suggests that freshwater fish were a part of the diet of early humans in Eurasia 40,000 years ago (Hu et al. 2009). Probably many of these fishes were the same Asian carp we know today as Cyprinus carpio and Ctenopharyngodon, captured with harpoon. Over time, methods of capture diversified so more types of fishes were captured from many different places (Hu et al 2009).
Fish hooks have been used for over 10,000 years and were commonly reported from the Mesolithic. were carved from wood, animal bone and antlers, thorns, and shells since the late Pleistocene. Excavations of a shelter in East Timor revealed the first use of hooks 42,000 years BP (O’Connor et al. 2011). At this excavation, at least 15 fish taxa were exploited during the earliest period of occupation, from 42,000 to 38,000 years BP. Scombridae (tunas) accounted for approximately 16% of the total, followed by Scaridae (parrotfish), Carangidae (trevallies), Balistidae (triggerfish), and Serranidae (groupers). Capturing pelagic fish such as tuna requires high levels of planning and the presence of tuna in garbage heaps suggests that inhabitants were fishing in the deep sea. Capturing parrotfish would likely be from traps or spears because they are seldom caught via hook and line.
|Fish hooks made from mammoth ivory aged about 19,000 years ago (northeastern Germany, Gramsch et al. 2013).|
Gramsch et al. (2013) discovered a fishhook made from mammoth ivory from the site In north-eastern Germany, the of which is about 19,000 years old. These fishhooks were of a size that they may have been used to capture salmon and pike. The emergence of barbed hooks with holes drilled for hook and line fishing came along later.
|Fishing tools from the Stone Age. A Mesolithic harpoons and hooks. B hooks of stone. C hooks of bone from Mesolithic period in North America. D Noelithic tools from northeast Europe. E. Prehistoric compound hooks of bone and horn from northern Eurasia. (Sahrhage and Lundbeck 1992).|
There are many ways to fish and humans have learned which gears to use to reduce cost, increase efficiency, and minimize unwanted catch (i.e., bycatch). Today, seines (including purse seines), trawls, gill nets, and hook and line gears are responsible for over 90% of commercial catch (Watson et al. 2006). Small fishes low on the trophic level are typically caught by seines and bottom trawls. Large top predators are most often caught via hook and line gears. Humans have learned to fish in more places and now fishing occurs on more than 55% of ocean area (Kroodsma et al. 2018). Fisheries employ 260 million people and fish are the primary protein source for ~ 40% of the world’s population (FAO 2018).
|Percentage of marine fish landings by gear type (Watson et al. 2006).|
|Trophic level of fish and standard length by different gear types (Watson et al. 2006).|
It is only in the last 1,000 years that humans have developed a pervasive culture around fishing for profit and more recently that we have learned to manage commercial fisheries in a sustainable manner. As we continue to improve technology and effort with seines (including purse seines), trawls, gill nets, and hook and line gears, the world’s fisheries production approached or exceeded 100 million tonnes but recent declines are worrisome (FAO 2018; Pauly and Zeller 2017, 2019). Without going into the bathypelagic zone to harvest Myctophiform fishes we are unlikely to expand our world catch of fishes much more. Food security is at risk for many countries dependent on fish for food. Humans, as a cultural species, have privileged fishing for profit over fishing for food. We must learn and adjust our fishing practices so that they are sustainable. We must consider other goals beyond profit and provide much needed protein via subsistence fisheries throughout the world.
|Catch of landings from FAO statistics and catch reconstructions (Pauly and Zeller 2016).|
Dalzell, P. 1998. The role of archaeological and cultural-historical records in long-range coastal fisheries resources management strategies and policies in the Pacific Islands. Ocean & Coastal Management 40:237-252.
FAO, Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 2018. Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome, Italy. P. xiii + 210.
Gramsch, B., J. Beran, S. Hanik, and R.S. Sommer. 2013. A Palaeolithic fishhook made of ivory and the earliest fishhook tradition in Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science 40:2458-2463.
Henrich, J. 2016. The secret of our success. How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
Henshilwood, C. S., J. C. Sealy, R. Yates, K. Cruz-Uribe, P. Goldberg, F. E. Grine, R. G. Klein, C. Poggenpoel, K. van Niekerk, and I. Watts. 2001. Blombos Cave, Southern Cape, South Africa: Preliminary report on the 1992–1999 excavations of the Middle Stone Age levels. Journal of Archaeological Science 28:421–448.
Hu, Y. C. Wang, H. Shag, H. Tong, O. Hehlich, W. Liu, C. Zhao, J. Yu, C. Wang, E. Trinkaus, and M.P. Richards. 2009. . Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106:10971-10974.
Kerch, P.V., and T.S. Dye. 1979. Ethno-archaeology and the development of Polynesian fishing strategies. The Journal of the Polynesian Society 88:53-76.
Kroodsma, D.A., et al. 2018. Tracking the global footprint of fisheries. Science 359:904-908.
Metspalu, M., T. Kivisild, E. Metspalu, J. Parik, G. Hudjashov, K Kaldma, P. Serk, M. Karmin, et al. 2004. Most of the extant mtDNA boundaries in south and southwest Asia were likely shaped during the initial settlement of Eurasia by anatomically modern humans. BMC Genetics 5: 26. doi:10.1186/1471-2156-5-26
O’Connor, S., R. Ono, and C. Clarkson. 2011. Pelagic fishing at 42,000 years before the present and the maritime skills of modern humans. Science 334:1117–1121.
Pauly, D., and D. Zeller. 2017. Comments on FAOs State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA 2016). Marine Policy 77:176-181.
Pauly, D., and D. Zeller. 2016. Catch reconstructions reveal that global marine fisheries catches are higher than reported and declining. Nature Communications 7, 10244
Pauly, D., and D. Zeller. 2019. Agreeing with FAO: Comments on SOFIA 2018. Marine Policy 100:332-333.
Pitcher, T.J., and M.E. Lam. 2015. Fish commoditization and the historical origins of catching fish for profit. Maritime Studies 14:2 https://doi.org/10.1186/s40152-014-0014-5
Robbins, L.H., M.L. Murphy, K.M. Stewart, A.C. Campbell, and G.A. Brook. 1994. Barbed bone points, paleoenvironment, and the antiquity of fish exploitation in the Kalahari Desert, Botswana. Journal of Field Archaeology 21:257-264.
Sahrhage, D., and J. Lundbeck. 1992. A history of fishing. Springer-Verlag, New York. 348 pp.Watson, R.A., C. Revenga, and Y. Kura. 2006. Fishing gear associated with global marine catches. I. Database development. Fisheries Research 79:97-102.