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 Timor 40,000 years ago were expert at catching skipjack tuna—fast, voracious fish that migrate in huge shoals. And by the time the Lapita people began their colonization of the Pacific Islands over three thousand years ago, fishing had become essential to their way of life.

Equally important for keeping people fed was the collection of shellfish, which, Fagan asserts, was “vital to almost every ancient fishing society.” Yet this practice has not inspired much research. “To knock a limpet from the rock does not require even cunning, that lowest power of the mind,” opined Charles Darwin—a view that perhaps explains why the subject has been so sadly neglected. Among the thousands of anthropological studies undertaken over the years, just one documents shellfish gathering in any detail. The study was the work of the heroic Betty Meehan, an Australian anthropologist who lived among the Anbarra people of Australia’s Arnhem Land in the 1970s. Accompanying women and children into tidal mudflats and crocodile-infested mangrove swamps whenever the tide was low, with only their dogs to scare away sharks and other predators, Meehan documented the collection of twenty-nine species of shellfish. The weight of the catch over less than a year was 6,700 kilograms, which yielded 1,500 kilograms of meat—quite a lot for the small clan.

Whenever conditions permitted, specialized fishing-based societies have developed. One was located at the Danube’s “Iron Gates,” where Europe’s greatest river flows for 143 miles between the Carpathian and Balkan Mountains. As much as 11,500 years ago, a prolific fishery harvested that king of fish, the sturgeon. Sturgeon are still taken there today, but in far smaller numbers. And the fish themselves are shrinking. A century ago they could exceed a ton in weight and live for over a hundred years, but today a fish weighing a few tens of pounds is considered mature enough to be fair prey. Between overfishing and pollution, Fagan says, “the recipe for extinction is in place” for the Danube’s sturgeon.


About 15,000 years ago, in what is now Japan, fishing was central to the Jomon culture. Famous for their very early use of pottery (from at least 14,700 years ago), the Jomon were a culturally complex and unusually sedentary people for the era before agriculture. Fagan thinks that fishing and the early development of Jomon pottery are linked. The earliest Jomon pots are shaped so that they could sit in a fire and may have held bubbling fish stews that would warm and fortify fisherfolk who had spent the day in chilly waters.

In 1947 the archaeologist Sugao Yamanouchi proposed a “salmon theory” of Jomon subsistence. He acknowledged that acorns, walnuts, and chestnuts were collected in the autumn and carefully stored by the Jomon, but he also believed that autumn salmon runs were at least as important as the nut and seed harvest, the fish being dried or smoked and stored for later use. There was only one problem with the idea: archaeologists had not found a single salmon bone in any Jomon site.

For over fifty years the “salmon theory” was disparaged. But when archaeologists started using sieves with finer mesh and wet-sieving the sediments they excavated, they found abundant fragments of salmon bones at some sites, suggesting that the fish had been filleted and preserved in large numbers. Indeed, one 11,000-year-old Jomon building, whose remains were unearthed in what is now Tokyo, appears to have been used solely for salmon preparation.

The introduction of rice agriculture from Korea reduced the importance of fish to the Jomon. But it is astonishing how enduring some aspects of the culture have proved to be. Even today, among the Ainu people of northern Japan and among Japanese more generally, fish are central to both culture and tradition. The now controversial and ongoing consumption of dolphin meat by some Japanese is, incidentally, also a tradition with a long history. The same excavation that revealed the salmon preparation house in Tokyo unearthed many dolphin bones, indicating that the marine mammals have been captured and butchered for at least 11,000 years.

The first Americans would have passed well to the north of the Jomon as they traversed Beringia (a former land area spreading from eastern Russia to Alaska) into North America. While we do not know whether the Jomon influenced those travelers, it is clear they were equipped to exploit salmon runs. Within a few thousand years of the opening of an ice-free corridor allowing people to spread south from Alaska 13,000 years ago, ways of life broadly similar to that of the Jomon were becoming established across the Pacific Northwest and down into California. Unfortunately, the rapidly rising seas that accompanied the melting ice obliterated most early evidence of these cultures.

California’s Channel Islands were home to one particularly intriguing fishing-centered culture, the Chumash, who used sewn plank canoes made from driftwood to hunt swordfish. A burial dating from 600 AD reveals just how important these spectacular fish had become to the island people. A man who apparently enjoyed local distinction had been laid to rest in a cloak of red abalone shells, his skull encased in the split head of a swordfish so that its bill pointed directly upward. Archaeologists identified him as a “Swordfish Dancer,” Fagan says, “who would have glittered with brilliant iridescence as he twirled and danced in the sunlight.”

The Chumash, like many of the fish-based cultures Fagan discusses, were vulnerable to changing climatic conditions such as El Niño, the recurrent Pacific warm-water cycle, which could devastate marine resources. One way of coping with this was to develop wide trade networks and to redistribute food and other goods in large ceremonies in the hope that distant neighbors would send food back in times of need. Along with an extremely sophisticated understanding of climatic patterns, such adaptations allowed some seafood-based societies to survive into historic times.

Fagan argues that, while it remains largely invisible, fishing was a vital part of ancient civilizations. Fish became a commodity for the first time, for example, in ancient Egypt, where the seine net was invented and fish fed armies of workmen. In 1991, at Giza, Egyptologist Mark Lehner discovered an enormous mud-brick building containing many troughs and benches whose floor was covered in fine ash in which were found countless fish bones. This building, Lehner thinks, was where the fish that fed the pyramid builders were prepared.

Fish—from the tuna that were harvested during their annual migration into the Mediterranean to the tiny fish and fish scraps that became that most famous of classical sauces, garum—were also central for the ancient Romans. As in China today, some fish were prestige menu items. Wealthy villa owners around the Bay of Naples sunk fortunes into coastal engineering works to support their fish-raising ponds. Among the most coveted of all fish were large red mullet—a species difficult to raise in ponds. The poet Martial related that Calliodorus sold a slave for four thousand sesterces and used the money to buy a four-pound farmed red mullet, while Juvenal complained that such a trophy fish could cost more than a cow, a racehorse, or even an estate.


Fishing survived the fall of Rome and remained important in the formation of other European empires. After pillaging their own fisheries for millennia, in 1497 the Europeans discovered the rich fish stocks on the far side of the Atlantic. The Venetian John Cabot, working for England’s Henry VII, could hardly believe his eyes when he reached Newfoundland, where the cod teemed so mightily that his crew could scoop them up in baskets. According to Fagan, profits from the trading of cod exceeded those from all of the gold that was mined in the Americas. The seemingly inexhaustible resources of the New World triggered a fish rush that would continue into the twentieth century. The story of what happened during the last moments of that rush is brilliantly told by Paul Molyneaux in The Doryman’s Reflection.

“I wonder if some people are born to callings that no longer exist,” Molyneaux asks early in his book. From his youth, Molyneaux had been drawn to the romance of fishing, and in 1977 as a teenager he entered the fishing industry. Just eight years earlier, the US government had released what became known as the Stratton Report. Named after Julius Stratton, former president of MIT and the Ford Foundation and the chair of the committee that produced the report, it sought to bring contemporary management to the timeless business of fishing. As the report put it, what was required was a “technically advanced and economically efficient fishing fleet with a minimum number of units.”

Treating a whole way of life as if it could be boiled down to a set of mathematically devised prescriptions was just one of the problems with the Stratton Report. It also assumed that between 400 and 500 million tons of fish per year could be sustainably caught. Fisheries experts put the number at a quarter of that. Even the author of the report now professes to have no idea how the preposterous figures found their way into print. Baseless as they were, they would destroy a culture—and an ocean.

At the time the Stratton Report was released, even the most advanced New England fishing boats did not differ greatly from the vessels that had set to sea from America’s Northeast for as long as anyone could remember. But in the year that Molyneaux entered the fishing industry, government grants and incentives saw to it that one new boat was entering the northeastern regional fishery every four days. These were big boats, with trawl gear that could irreparably rip up fish habitat and swallow whole schools with one tow. At first Molyneaux was far from the action—laboring in a scallop-canning factory. But by 1978 he had drifted to California, where he got a “site” (a job) on a classic West Coast troller, fishing for albacore; the following year he was back in New England aboard a scalloping boat. Both voyages were hair-raising, involving hurricanes, equipment failure, and inexperienced crews working with heavy, dangerous gear.

A few years later Molyneaux, now a seasoned fisherman, began working in the Alaskan halibut fishery aboard the Laurinda Ann, out of Seldovia. Government regulation meant that in some years the fishing season for some species could last as little as two hours before the quota was reached. In that brief time a lucky fisherman might make $100,000. On his first voyage Molyneaux fished for three days straight. “You can have a string sandwich,” the captain said when Molyneaux wanted to eat. “You know what that is? You hang a sandwich from a string and take a bite out of it every time you run by.”

With everyone exhausted, a Methuselah of a halibut, weighing in excess of four hundred pounds, was hauled from the deep to the surface of the sea. The captain appeared, bleary-eyed, in the door of the wheelhouse with a .357 Magnum in hand. “Get out of my way,” he said, before firing repeatedly at the halibut, the bullets passing between crew members until the fish’s head was shot to pieces. The barn-door-sized body slid free from the hook and its “broad barnacled back began to sink.” “Shit! There goes four or five hundred dollars,” someone exclaimed before setting back to work. Perhaps the captain calculated that they could make more money in the time it would take to get the giant aboard. Or perhaps he was just mad with exhaustion.

Years later Molyneaux returned to Alaska, to help with a fisheries initiative set up among the Yupik people. He left when he realized that the whole project was a sham—a “bone tossed to the Yupiks while the industrial scale boats took the resource.” Before he departed he came across half a dozen huge halibut rotting on the shore. An old Yupik woman “cried and pointed at the fish, speaking harshly to Sam [Molyneaux’s companion]. ‘She says a curse will come from this,’” Sam translated. “Tell her it already has,” Molyneaux replied.

The fishermen Molyneaux worked with were no saints. Some shot seabirds for fun. Others destroyed the young fish that their future depended upon. But the best of them were wise, even as they pursued a livelihood in ways that they knew were destroying the life under the sea. It is devastating to realize that a different set of regulations, formulated to draw from the resources of the sea without ruining them, might have saved the fisherfolk, and the sea. Instead, they got Stratton.

Molyneaux went back to New England, where a meeting with members of the Raynes family changed his life. Descendants of French Acadians who were forced from their lands in the Northeast by British settlers in the mid-eighteenth century, the Rayneses had been fisherfolk ever since. Molyneaux took up with Bernard Raynes, who ran a scallop boat, among other things, out of Rockland, Maine, retaining the accumulated knowledge of centuries of fishing experience. It was a hard life. Four of Bernard’s uncles were claimed by the sea, and they were often very poor. But there was something about the family that drew Molyneaux to return again and again.

Two great acts of empathy stand out in Molyneaux’s account. In one he describes Bernard Raynes using century-old tools to build a wooden skiff, following a model made by his father. As the work progresses, slowly and meticulously, Bernard tells how the fishery has changed. His story is drawn from his own recollections, as well as the tales and logbooks of his ancestors, going back to the late nineteenth century. As Bernard crafts the boat, we see how fishing has crafted the man. A way of being unfolds: hard, independent, confident, and in many ways immensely satisfying.

Molyneaux’s second act of empathy took my breath away. On a single, imaginative page he carries us forty fathoms deep into the Gulf of Maine. It’s night, and a single great cod searches in darkness for a breeding place. Guided by sound, her once-acute hearing has been all but destroyed by the racket made by sonar, seismic surveys, and ships’ engines. The fish on which she feeds are half the size they used to be and laced with PCBs and other toxins, meaning that her eggs are not as fertile as in times past. The very bottom of the deep she traverses has been heavily damaged by trawling. Only crevices between a few glacial boulders, so immense as to be immovable by the trawl nets, provide the oasis of anemone and coral she needs to lay her eggs. These are fertilized by the much smaller males around her. But the world the new generation is born into is altered. Voracious dogfish now abound, and the “rumbling nets, clinking chain, and banging doors drive them from their last strongholds.” The cod by now are gone, Molyneaux believes, never to return.

By the 1990s the dire state of the oceans had become a cause for many environmental groups, and governments were experimenting with yet more ways to regulate the fisheries. Individual transferable quotas became the latest solution. But the big industrial vessels received most of the quotas, and fisherfolk like Bernard Raynes just saw more hardship—and more paperwork. It is difficult to contemplate a superbly competent fisherman and his wife struggling with page after page of incomprehensible bureaucratic jargon. Even the names of the fish in the documents differ from those the fishermen know. And a breach of the all-but-incomprehensible rules brings a heavy fine.

In March 2017 it was reported that, twenty-five years after being decimated by overfishing, the cod stocks off Newfoundland were recovering. They were estimated to have increased tenfold since the early 1990s, though they remained far below the size that could support a healthy fishery. Further south, however, where Bernard Raynes fished, the cod are showing little sign of recovery. And nobody knows why.

Fagan’s and Molyneaux’s books about fishing are very different. But they are unanimous in their admiration of fishermen. “Subsistence fishers exist on the edge of history…but their brilliant adaptations helped spread the human species throughout the world,” says Fagan, while Molyneaux brings us face to face with such men. Of Bernard Raynes, he writes that he

had retained his own system, within but apart from the one aimed at destroying him. He built his boat, and the quality of his craftmanship spoke for itself. He fished his way, and survived the perfect storm of federal fisheries mismanagement and environmental destruction…. The policy makers said he was obsolete. Far from it. He is a human being with a purpose.