Science blog

16 June 2015

Fishing from the Earliest Times: A very brief history

Our next TalkScience event will explore the impacts of fishing on the marine realm. But how long have humankind been fishing for food? Peter Spooner delves into the British Library collections to find out.

Archaeology and Ancient Poems

Anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) have been eating seafood for at least 164,000 years. Caves in South Africa contain the very earliest evidence for humans eating shellfish, as well as evidence for humans eating shallow-water fish 140,000 years ago1. However, complex fishing equipment probably did not arise until much later. For example, the oldest known fishing hooks come from a cave in East Timor, South-East Asia, dating to 40,000 years BC2.

Pompeii fish mosaic
Mosaic with fish, Pompeii, 1st Century B.C.,

By the time of the ancient Egyptians, and  then the Greeks and Romans, fishing with all kinds of equipment was common. Passages  in the works of Homer (8th century BC)3 and whole volumes by other scholars including Pliny the Elder (1st century AD)4, Ovid (1st century BC to AD) and Oppian (2nd century AD)5 describe fishing methods and the natural history of marine animals6. The latter works explain in incredible detail the habits and habitats of many animals, with examples including the migrations of tuna and the cleverness of dolphins.

These texts also provide interesting insights into the early development of some controversial fishing practices. For example, passages in Oppian’s ‘Halleutica’ and Pliny’s ‘Natural History’ describe early fish aggregation devices (FADs), which usually involve floating an object in the sea. Fish are attracted to the object and gather around it. They can then be easily captured. Today this is a method which risks causing overfishing7. Ancient versions of the FAD technique included hanging baskets in the water, or men venturing out day after day and feeding the fish by a particular rock until so many fish had gathered that it was easy to pull them into the boat. Another story in Oppian describes the use of a poison – derived from cyclamen root – to drive fish into waiting nets. Today, the use of poisons such as cyanide in fishing is described by the United Nations as a ‘destructive’ fishing technique8. But there are other ancient passages which refer to a much more wonderful kind of fishing.

Spiderweb fishing net
Spiderweb fishing net from Pratt (1906)

Weird and Wonderful

One fishing method recorded by both Oppian and Pliny seems almost too remarkable to be true. It was written that in certain towns, fishermen would wade out into the water carrying nets or spears in readiness. Then they would shout and wait until dolphins came in from the sea, and the dolphins would drive schools of fish into the shallows where they could be caught. The men would reward the dolphins with fish and, according to Pliny, bread mash dipped in wine! This incredible practice still exists today in Brazil (though not, as far as I know, the wine), and fishing with the help of tame animals – such as otters and cormorants – still occurs in Asia9 (see reference for videos).

Amongst other almost magical fishing methods, people in New Guinea have used spiders to spin fairy-like fishing nets10. By setting a wooden frame in an area where spiders lived, they could entice the spiders into creating nets of just the right shape and size. Spider silk has also been used for centuries in kite fishing, where the silk lure is dangled below a kite at the surface of the water11.

First page of Ælfric's Colloquy, British Library

Medieval mismanagement

Compared to the ancient techniques  described above, modern industrial methods seem far more likely to result in unsustainable fishing. After all, how could a few hooks and nets pulled by hand or sailing boat catch enough fish to be a problem? Probably the earliest description of fishing in the English language is contained in the Colloquy of Ælfric12, a teaching manual for languages written in the late 10th or early 11th centuries. The description is in the form of a conversation between teacher and student, who is speaking in the role of a fisherman in England at the time. The teacher asks ‘Forhwi ne fixast þu on sæ?’: why don’t you fish at sea? The student replies lazily that it is too  far to row; he fishes in rivers instead13. But archaeologists have discovered that a major shift in English diet from freshwater fish to saltwater species was occurring almost as  this text was written. This shift has been linked to unsustainable management of freshwater systems, including the building of dams and the effects of farming on rivers14, and seems to be an early example of fishery expansion after local stocks collapsed. Given a few more years fishermen might have had to row the distance after all.

As illustrated by this example, sustainable fisheries management requires consideration of the whole ecosystem within which the fish live, as well as the needs of those who depend on the seas for their livelihood. Our next TalkScience event, ‘Fishing and marine protection: What’s the catch?’ will explore some of these issues. If you would like to be part of the discussion, tickets cost £5 and are available from our website.

1 C. W. Marean et al., 2007. Early human use of marine resources and pigment in South Africa during the Middle Pleistocene. Nature, 449, pp. 905-908, doi: 10.1038/nature06204. BL shelfmark: 6045.000000

2 S. O’Connor et al., 2011. Pelagic fishing at 42,000 years before the present and maritime skills of modern humans. Science, 334, pp. 1117-1121, doi: 10.1126/science.1207703. BL shelfmark: 8130.000000

3 For an example see: Homer, The Odyssey, Book XII lines 243-250. Translation by B. B. Powell. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014. BL shelfmark: General Reference Collection YC.2015.a.5169 

4 Pliny the Elder, Natural History / Introduction by Anthony T. Grafton, Translated by H. Rackham, [W.H.S. Jones and D.E. Eichholz]. Volume 2, Book IX. Folio Society, London, 2012. BL shelfmark: General Reference Collection YC.2012.b.985

5 Oppian, Colluthus, Tryphiodorus. With an English translation by A. W. Mair, pages 201-515. William Heinemann, London, 1928. BL shelfmark: General Reference Collection 2282.d.106. 

6 W. Radcliffe. Fishing from the earliest times. John Murray, London, 1921. BL shelfmark: Document Supply W18/7736

9 Videos of each of these practices can be found here.

10 A. E. Pratt. Two years among New Guinea cannibals: A naturalist’s sojourn among the aborigines of unexplored New Guinea. Seeley and Co. Limited, London, 1906. BL shelfmark: General Reference Collection 10492.g.15.

13 Ã†lfric’s Colloquy, edited by G. N. Garmonsway. Exeter Medieval English Texts, University of Exeter, 1978, pg 28. BL shelfmark: General Reference Collection X.908/42593

14 J. H. Barrett et al., 2004. The origins of intensive marine fishing in Medieval Europe: The English evidence. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 271, pp. 2417-2421, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2004.2885. BL shelfmark: 6804.600000


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