Gone Fishing

Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos
A fisherman and his catch, Sicily, 2004

The classic story of the rise of human civilizations traces food procurement from hunting and gathering to the domestication of animals and plants. In Fishing, Brian Fagan makes the case that this account misses a crucial third element—the harvesting of marine and aquatic resources. Far from being a peripheral activity, Fagan argues, the collection of marine resources has been a central and enduring element in human nourishment. It is also the only way of obtaining food that has persisted from the time of our distant ancestors into the present in a largely unmodified form. “The net, the spear, the hook and line, and the trap were the fishing tools of prehistory; they are still the tools today,” he notes.

Fagan admits that his accomplishments as a fisherman are modest, but he is a first-rate archaeologist and the author of forty-six books, many of which explain aspects of archaeology to a general audience. Sixty years ago, when he found fish bones in the remains of a thousand-year-old Central African village, a colleague threw them away. “Useless,” he said. “We can’t identify them.” But the incident stuck with Fagan, and when he later found fish bones in another African site, a fisheries expert identified them as the remains of catfish. Just how the fish were probably caught was revealed by the creatures’ breeding habits. Each year as the rivers rise near the site, the catfish follow the floodwaters and breed in ephemeral pools, where they become concentrated in large numbers as the waters recede. It seems likely that all anyone had to do was to stoop down and scoop them up.

Fagan thinks it unlikely that our most distant ancestors would have passed up such an easy meal. Moreover, spawning catfish were a predictable resource, and their oily meat would have been an ideal food for growing brains. Fagan believes them to have been so important to our evolution that he was tempted to call Part 1 of his book “How Catfish Created Civilization.” Yet all that remains in the archaeological record to support his contention is a tiny scatter of catfish bones in 1.75-million-year-old sediments at Olduvai Gorge, along with a similar scatter from 1.95-million-year-old deposits at Lake Turkana, both in East Africa. Fagan’s work reminds us that sometimes even the most sophisticated archaeological studies miss very big things, simply because the evidence for them does not preserve well or is difficult to interpret.

Humans seem to have fished wherever they had the opportunity. Neanderthals copied bears and birds to take advantage of European salmon runs, while early humans living in southern Africa harvested a wide variety of coastal marine creatures. It seems likely that the first humans to leave Africa and travel into Southeast Asia and Australia were accomplished fishers. Their descendants living on the island of East…

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