It’s How Old!?

I  was preparing a time line of modern – that is to say, 20th century – commercial fishing developments when I realised that my education to date puts my frame of reference back by a few millenia or so. By next week I will have finished a rough pelagic time line to share here, but until then here is a roughly chronological description of some of man’s fish-related achievements from the beginning

First, I also have to give my thanks to Vónin of the lovely Faroe Islands  for their generous donation to this PhD endeavor! It is much appreciated and I look forward to being able to pop over and give my thanks in person when the PhD is complete!

1.  There are indications that Neanderthal man, about 100,000 years ago, had a preference for waters where trout could be easily caught, by hand and with the aid of fish traps.

2.  By 50,000 years ago humans, homo sapiens, had developed tools that were specific for fishing; these include barbs for spears or arrows and fishing hooks. These were made from bone, ivory and horn. Fish traps and dams in rivers were also used.

3.  Cave paintings (30,000 to 10,000 years old) in France and Spain which show animals such as horses and bison also have images of fish and dolphins. Contemporary rock carvings from northern Europe and Scandinavia show whales and horses. There are also models made from clay and carvings on personal objects made from reindeer horn. Remains in caves dwellings associated with the people who made these objects and paintings show that they ate salmon, trout, pike, breem, eel and more.

4.  One of the earliest settled, as opposed to hunter-gatherer, maritime cultures is in Denmark. It is the Ertebölle culture. They made hooks and harpoons from horn and bone, ate large quantities of mussels and oysters as well as flounder, herring, eel, cod and haddock.

5. Skara Brae, a Neolithic settlement from 3000BC, had numerous artefacts including pins, knives, beads and needles made from killer whale teeth. Other artefacts were made from whalebone and walrus ivory. Other sites in Scotland from this time and older show that they must also have fished from boats close to shore, as bones from rays, sharks and cetaceans have been found.

6. Examples of fishing are not just from the coast – Alpine lakes show evidence like those found from the coast, as well as some of the earliest examples of logboats. There are a lot of logboats that can be found in inland Ireland – they appear to have been used for traveling throughout the country via the network of rivers and loughs, as well as for fishing.

7.  The first written references to trawl gear are from Europe. The earliest is in England in 1376, and refers to a ‘wondyrchoun’. This appears to have been a beam trawl of some variety and used primarily in the Thames. At the time, several complaints and petitions were made to ban it. The worry at the time was that it caused damage to the seabed, killed too many juvenile fish and that it would not be sustainable. In the Netherlands a ‘wonderkuil’ is referenced in 1341 – when it was banned. It was a two-boat trawl designed to catch small fish om the coast.

8.  Fishing isn’t by any means restricted to Europe. Rock carvings from Africa show that Neolithic Africans used to spear fish from boats and that they were aware of whales and dolphins. Native Americans and the Inuit have very old traditions of whale hunting and seal fishing, as well as fishing in general from boats and fish traps. Inuit and Eskimo cultures made skin boats such as canoes, kayaks and umiaqs, While Native American cultures made logboats and bark boats.

9.  It was from the 18th century or so that fishing (and fishermen) became denigrated, as it was associated with the poor. When naturalists and explorers discovered new, “primitive” cultures, they often remarked in their need to subside on fishing and hunting – which was seen as being uncivilised and lacking in material wealth or culture. As parts of Europe (like England and Germany) had become separated from the Catholic Church in the 16th and 17th centuries, the tradition of meat free days and other rituals meant that fish was not the commodity it had once been, becoming a more coastal foodstuff and for the poor.

10.  The industrialisation from the 19th century made fishing an important and crucial part of the British diet. Railways, freezing and marketing put fish back on the list of affordable and fresh foodstuffs. This was similar for most European countries.

Well, one thing that is very clear, man and the sea has had a long and fruitful relationship for which the the commercial fishing industry of the 20th and 21st centuries are just the latest chapters. And don’t be fooled by terms like logboat or skin boat – these beauties could easily be up to 15 meters long (and more) and designed to carry up to 30 people at a time!