Our regional ancestors mastered the art of deep sea fishing 42,000 years ago.
An excavation at Jerimalai cave in Northern East Timor has uncovered 38,000 fish bones from 2,843 individual fish, including pelagic species such as tuna. The bones, which have been dated to 42,000 years before present, indicate that our regional ancestors had developed high level maritime skills, as they were able to catch fast-moving, deep ocean fish.
The fish bones were discovered by Australian National University archaeologist Sue O’Connor during an excavation in East Timor. She also uncovered three fish hooks which have been dated to 16,000 to 23,000 years.
While the hooks don’t appear to be suitable for pelagic fishing, they demonstrate a high level of maritime skill. “It’s an extremely significant find,” O’Connor said.
“[It's] currently the world’s oldest fish hook.”
However, the presence of the deep-ocean fish bones suggest that the earlier inhabitants of the region must have had some other methods of fishing. Deep-ocean fishing is still regarded as challenging and is carried out using seine nets or through trolling.
“The fish hooks imply… other technologies,” O’Connor said. While net fibres wouldn’t have survived, it seems likely that these would have been used for off-shore fishing.
The site may also help explain an Australian mystery. The question of how aboriginals arrived in Australia at such an early date has puzzled archaeologists, as many of the water craft used by Aboriginals at the time of European arrival were relatively simple, such as rafts and canoes.
Australian Aboriginals must have had the technology to travel hundreds of kilometres by sea, according to O’Connor. “And yet it seems perplexing, because there is no hint of it in the Australian archaeological record.”
The current aboriginal archaeological record indicates that they mostly hunted on land and may have lost the need for fishing skills. However, this is difficult to confirm, as most of the coastal sites from early Aboriginal occupation would have been drowned when sea levels rose 11,000 years ago.
In comparison, many of the Northern East Timor sites are very close to the edge of the continental shelf and would still be preserved. And the skills demonstrated at the Jerimalai cave site imply that they had the technology to make the long sea voyage to Australia 50,000 years ago.
“It explains to us how the people can have made the journey this early,” O’Connor said.