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An ancient cooper fish hook used to hunt sharks was found on Israeli coasts. Source: Israel Antiquities Authority

6,000-Year-Old Fishhook Indicates Shark Was on the Menu


This ancient copper “fishhook” is the earliest of its type ever discovered in Israel. But this hook wasn’t used for hauling up inshore tiddlers, rather, it was designed for hunting huge sharks off Israel's coast some 6,000 years ago.

The rare copper fishing hook was unearthed at a new village site near Ashkelon, a coastal city around 4 kilometers (2.5 mi) from the sea, located about 50 kilometers (31.07 mi) south of Tel Aviv, in southern Israel. Evidence of human settlement in this area dates back to the Neolithic period, around 6,000 BC, and during the Bronze Age the city was inhabited by the Canaanites, who were later conquered by the Philistines.

According to the researchers who uncovered and studied the large copper fishing hook, it was found in 2018 in a previously unknown ancient village beneath the city of Ashkelon. The fishhook represents “one of the first of its kind” to have been made in the region, and its discovery confirms that “shark meat was most likely on the menu” around 6,000 years ago in what is today Israel.

Prehistoric Hunting Tuna and Sharks

Yael Abadi-Reiss, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) who co-led the recent excavation, said in a statement that the discovery “is a unique find" because almost all other fishing hooks uncovered from this time period are much smaller and were are crafted from small animal bones. However, according to Live Science, the oldest fishing hooks ever discovered were found in 2005 in Southeast Asia on the island nation of East Timor. Specifically used to catch deep sea tuna, these hunting tools were made a staggering 42,000 years ago.

The copper hook discovered in Israel measures around 6.5 centimeters (2.5 in) long by 4 centimeters (1.6 in) wide. This means the device was strong enough to have hauled in the weight of large tuna and sharks between 2 and 3 meters (6.5 and 10 ft) long. According to an article in The Times of Israel, this size matches two species of requiem shark: the adult dusky shark (Carcharhinus obscurus) and the sandbar sharks (Carcharhinus plumbeus), which is also known as the brown shark or thick skin shark.

Among The First Metals Created in The Region

Putting this shark hook into historical perspective, the Chalcolithic period, also known as the "Copper Age," lasted between 4,500 BC and 3,500 BC. According to Abadi-Reiss the shark hook represents “one of the first metal variants that people created in the region.”

It is known that the village residents were resource rich through agriculture, fishing and metalwork, but the researchers wrote that this “rare fish hook” is evidence that local fishermen sailed out to sea in their boats and cast the “newly invented copper fish hook into the water,” with the goal of adding shark meat to their menu.

Previous archaeological evidence gathered from coastal Israeli sites suggests sharks were fished for their meat, skin, and other valuable products. Depictions of sharks can be found in ancient art and artifacts, including pottery and mosaics, which suggest the animal was a significant part of the cultural and artistic heritage of ancient coastal communities. And supporting this statement, shark teeth have been found in ancient graves in the ancient city of Ashkelon, that were used for decorating the deceased. In one instance, archaeologists unearthed a 5th century BC burial site in Ashkelon, in which the body of a young woman was adorned with a necklace made of shark teeth.

Ancient fishhook found in Ashkelon, Israel was most likely used to hunt sharks. (Israel Antiquities Authority)

Ancient fishhook found in Ashkelon, Israel was most likely used to hunt sharks. (Israel Antiquities Authority)

The Rise of Shark Hunting

At the coastal Israeli sites of Tel Dor and Caesarea, archaeologists have found evidence of shark fishing, including the discovery of hooks, weights, and net weights. The presence of shark teeth and fishing equipment at these sites determines that sharks were an important part of the marine ecosystem in this entire region, and shark teeth were also used for jewelry and ornamentation at these locations.

The archaeological record indicates that the ancient inhabitants of Tel Dor and Caesarea had a strong connection to the sea and relied heavily on its resources for their livelihood and culture. And so does this shark hook discovered at Ashkelon, which provides evidence of big game hunting, at sea, during the Copper Age. However, the oldest known evidence of shark fishing in the Middle East was discovered at the site of the Azraq Oasis in Jordan, where a Mesolithic cave painting depicting a hunter spearing a shark has been dated to around 10,000-5,000 BC.

Top image: An ancient cooper fish hook used to hunt sharks was found on Israeli coasts. Source: Israel Antiquities Authority

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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