Deep Sea Fishing 42,000 BP

The Jerimalai shelter during excavation <i>(Image: Susan O'Conner)</i>

Jerimalai Shelter in East Timor, Indonesia.  This is where archaeologists found the remains of deep sea fish caught by humans 42,000 years ago.

The people capable of deep sea fishing in what’s now Indonesia 42,000 years ago may have been related to the ancestors of Australian aborigines.

Many archaeologists underestimate the technological capabilities of primitive men.  Most are convinced that early men could not traverse great nautical distances, despite the known presence of aborigines on the island continent of Australia as early as 50,000 BP.  The lack of marine technology among Australian aborigines, who could barely master building a raft that could stay afloat on a river, has long puzzled them.  Likewise, many reject the hypothesis that some or all American Indians are descendents of people originally arriving via coastal routes. I don’t understand why they reject this possibility.  People able to construct fabulous boats may have made the decision to move inland.  Without a written language, the knowledge of how to navigate across great oceanic distances could have been lost in 1 generation.  All it would take to lose the technology would be the death of a few men with the know how.  Oral tradition may have included memorized story telling, but reciting the steps of how to build a marine worthy vessel would have been too dry to sing around the fire at night.

Evidence that men were capable of deep sea fishing as long as 42,000 years ago was recently unearthed at the Jerimalai Shelter in East Timor, Indonesia.  Scientists discovered 38,000 fish bones from 23 different species including those that primarily inhabit deep ocean–tuna, shark, and parrottfish.  (As far as I know, the complete list hasn’t been published yet, or I surely would have that information on my blog.)  The fish bones date to 42,000 years BP.  A fish hook made out of a clam was found here, but this artifact only dates to about 16,000 BP.  How the more ancient fishermen caught tuna is a complete mystery.  No fish hooks of that age have been excavated here, and of course hand lines and nets are organic and have probably decayed into dust.  It’s surprising that they were able to successfully catch tuna.

Tuna grow even bigger than this.

The Pacific tuna (Thunnus orientalis) is a fast warm blooded fish capable of swimming at speeds up to 40 mph.  They grow to 500 lbs., though the ones the ancient fishermen caught were juveniles much smaller than their maximum size.  Still, the ability to navigate a boat into deep water, catch large strong fish, and return to shore is amazing, considering the primitive technology they utilized.

Archaeologists are also aware of another amazing oceanic journey that took place during the Pleistocene.  Stephen Loring, a museum anthropologist, examined the Manley projectile point, an artifact originally found in Vermont, and he had a eureka moment.  He knew this type of arrowhead was made about 12,000 years ago.  But he realized this particular one was made from Ramah chert–a kind of rock found only in Labrador.  (All rock is 99.9% silica.  Geologists can determine the origin of a rock by analyzing the remaining .1%)  Labrador is 1000 miles from Vermont.

Ancient mariners stumbled upon quality chert for tool making 12,000 years ago while cruising the coast of Labrador.

Blade made out of Ramah chert.  The Ramah chert blade comes from rock only found in Labrador.  This blade was made about 2800 years ago, but the Manley projectile point was found in Vermont and dates to about 12,000 years ago.  The land route at this time was blocked by glacial ice.  That means ancient people traveled 1000 miles along the coastal waters to reach the stone quarry.

The only way an Indian could travel back and forth from what’s now Vermont to Labrador 12,000 years ago was by sea because the land route was blocked by a mile high glacier and meltwater streams and ice impeded a sea shore journey.  Moreover, they had to navigate in and around numerous icebergs, so their route was at least 1000-1600 miles.  Archaeologists argue amongst themselves over whether the ancient mariners paddled or sailed, but they have no doubt the journey was accomplished at least once. 

Archaeologists are searching for evidence that Paleo-indians colonized America via a coastal route, but the proof will be difficult to find.  Sea levels rose following the end of the Ice Age, and any evidence that exists is deep underwater.  Boats made out of skin and wood have likely long since decayed into nothingness.


Guest, Amy

“A Story of Ancient Mariners”

Mammoth Trumpet (26) 4 October 2011


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6 Responses to “Deep Sea Fishing 42,000 BP”

  1. James Robert Smith Says:

    Humans would always do what it took to survive. Whether it was figuring out the basic technology to navigate, or to learn how to transport materials they needed elsewhere over long distances.

    I have no doubt that “primitive” folk figured out how to catch deep-water fish. When you’re a hungry fisherman and you’re out on the water, you keep lowering the hook or net until you’re able to find game. And you’ll travel farther out on the sea until you locate schools of fish, wherever they are on the column of water.

    Humans also tend to forget stuff when they don’t have a way to record the facts in hard copy. For instance, the descendants of the very people who hunted mammoths to extinction in Asia would, upon finding a frozen mammoth carcass exposed on the tundra, claim that they were the giant animals who lived under the earth and used their tusks to dig through the rock and soil. Although their ancestors had killed and eaten mammoths, the modern Inuit and their relatives had completely lost all knowledge of a creature that had likely been the centerpiece of their existence as recently as a few thousand years ago.

    • markgelbart Says:

      Consider this though: It probably wasn’t necessary for them to risk going that far from shore to find fish. There are always plenty of fish in inland waters.

      It must have been curiosity and a sense of adventure that led them to take the risk.

  2. Mark L. Says:

    Yep, might have helped Easter Islanders for a few to remember how to make boats when they chopped all their trees down. It’s still the same evolutionary mantra though: Use it or lose it.
    Imagine catching an even medium sized tuna in a kayak/canoe and hauling it in, fighting for hours. That is impressive.

  3. James Robert Smith Says:

    The reward in calories for catching a big fish–or a lot of fish–is what drove them.

  4. markgelbart Says:

    There’s lots of fish, and big ones too, close to shore. People aren’t food-eating robots. I doubt they were driven purely to increase their calorie count.

    I think they went farther out to sea for the hell of it.

  5. Tuna- The Superfish | GeorgiaBeforePeople Says:

    […] is evidence from Indonesia that humans caught tuna as early as 42,000 years ago. (See: ) It’s surprising some primitive people had deep sea fishing technology that early, though […]

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