42,000 years ago, YOUR ancestors were fishing!

As I have mentioned before, one of my real passions is Human Evolution. I often think about what I would do differently in terms of degree choice if I had the option. I think some of my peers might have picked a degree that had a little more job security at the end! I would probably do biological anthropology, Archaeology or something along those lines. Don’t get me wrong, I love my degree and I love the sheer possibility that I might work in Journalism in the future, but there is something incredibly attractive about learning about how our ancestors lived, interacted, developed etc. Imagine being the first person to see a skeleton, piece of jewellery or remains of a settlement for tens, even hundreds of thousands of years. Such a discovery has recently been made, which for such a small artefact can tell us an incredible amount about how our ancestors lived. That artefact is a simple fishhook – 42,000 years old.

50,000 years ago our species (Homo sapien) was making a defining journey across Asia, colonising areas of the coast and moving inland as they travelled by boat all the way to Australia. Globally evidence of fishing before 12,000 years ago is rare. Many caves which were inhabited prior to 12,000 years ago contain mollusc shells, shark and fish remains; however there was no direct evidence of advanced fishing skills. It was unknown if this was because rising coast levels had hidden all evidence of this behaviour from current archaeologists, or simply because these early humans didn’t fish.

All this changed in 2005, during an excavation of two 1 x 1 metre sites in a cave in East Timor (South East Asia). These two sites alone produced 9752 stone artefacts, bone points, shell beads, 15 taxa of fish and fishhooks made from shell. This is the first direct evidence of fishing technology before 12,000 years ago. This vastly changes the way we think our ancestors caught fish around this time. Potential methods include netting and spearing, angling using a baited hook and trapping. All of these methods would have required hooks (similar to the one in Figure 1). These methods would also have dramatically increased the success of the fishing techniques, and size of prey they could capture.

It may not come as a surprise that a species so proficient in navigating the seas could also fish competently, but this evidence shows how humans managed to exploit the coastlines and survive on their long voyage of colonisation.


Figure 1 - A broken shell fishhook found in East Timor. (scale is in millimetres).
Figure 1 - A broken shell fishhook found in East Timor. (scale is in millimetres).

The original research paper can be found at:


O’Connor, S., Ono, R. & Clarkson, C. Science 334, 1117–1121 (2011).


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