How the Sea Fed Civilization

How the Sea Fed Civilization


How the Sea Fed Civilization – When I found some fish bones in a one-thousand-year-old farming village in Central Africa many years ago, my colleague threw them away. “Useless,” he spoke. “We can’t identify them.” I was helping him out on his dig. Being very new to the game, I could say nothing. I’m sure he forgot the fragments at once, but his words remain with me nearly sixty years later. My interest in ancient fishing dates back to that long-completed excavation.

My own excavations into African farming villages during the early 1960s yielded no evidence of fish. Their inhabitants were cereal farmers and cattle people who hunted game and foraged for edible wild plants on the side.

Only one dig involved hunters and plant gatherers, a place called Gwisho hot springs far north of my farmers. Three thousand years ago a small band camped by the springs, which overlook the Kafue River floodplain. The summer flood spills over this huge plain, then recedes, leaving behind shallow pools.

My Belgian colleague Francis Van Noten and I were lucky at Gwisho. The site was waterlogged. We recovered wooden spear points, a digging stick, numerous antelope bones, plant remains—and fish bones, which we asked Graham Bell-Cross, a Zambian fisheries officer, to examine.

Almost all were from catfish, easily speared in shallow pools as a flood recedes. We had no idea how much was known about their bones and were astounded when he told us that the most complete bones came from fish weighing between two and three kilograms, about the same as modern-day catfish in the Kafue.

Fish were an unimportant part of the Gwisho diet of three thousand years ago. In retrospect, the people clearly took them opportunistically at the end of the flood, when the fish were easy to spot and kill in the shallows. They may even have caught some by hand.

Over the years I’ve visited modern fishing villages in Africa and elsewhere, pored over ancient fish bones, which I found hard to identify, and talked to fisherfolk working in many different waters, deep and shallow.

I was dazzled by salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest, where the fish crowded rapids and shallow pools. That’s when you realize just how bountiful the world’s fisheries once were. But only in recent years have archaeologists and historians turned serious attention to one of the oldest means of human subsistence.

Fishers have always been anonymous folk, usually on the margins of society, far from pharaohs’ courts and teeming urban markets. Their catches must have arrived silently almost every day—a predictable food supply if one allowed for the seasons.

To a scholar the illiterate fishing people of the past are elusive, and the history of their trade is a challenging puzzle of clues. Our knowledge of fishing must be assembled from many sources, including archaeology, anthropology, history, marine biology and oceanography, and also paleoclimatology, to mention only a few.

Since there are almost no firsthand accounts that date from before the eighteenth century, finding historical records of fishing involves searching through such esoteric sources as court records, information on fish landings for urban markets, manor and monastic diaries, and the occasional treatise on
the subject.

Fortunately, anthropological studies of modern-day subsistence fishing and mollusk collecting add a rich dimension to the documents and offer an invaluable perspective on the thousands of fragmentary and often minute fish bones found at archaeological sites.

Nineteenth-century Scandinavian archaeologists were the first to take prehistoric fish and mollusks seriously. This is hardly surprising: they found huge shell heaps (middens) surrounding many archaeological sites on Baltic shores.

Then their careful cataloguing of fish bones and mollusk shells passed into obscurity. In the early twentieth century most excavators who discovered fish bones considered it sufficient to say that the inhabitants fished.

They compiled no lists of species or information on ages and weights of the catch, and their reports provided little assessment of whether fish or mollusks had any importance to the people who ate them.

Everything changed during the 1950s, when archaeologists realized there was far more to studying an ancient community than counting stone artifacts or comparing potsherds. They turned to animal bones and plant remains and, later, to fish for the information they could yield. This is one of the reasons archaeological excavations today is far slower than they were even a generation ago.

By the 1970s excavators were passing samples of occupation deposits through fine-mesh screens and water, especially to recover inconspicuous plant remains and fish bones. Wet sifting, often called flotation, has produced a surge of knowledge about ancient fisheries. The finer the screen, the better.


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