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Representation of a full set of the fishing tackle found at the Hula Valley site in northern Israel.

Fishing Tackle Used to Catch Monster Carp 12,000 Years Ago, Says Study


A new study in PLOS ONE demonstrates how ancient humans in the Middle East crafted and used sophisticated fishing tackle as early as 10,000 BC. With these fishing tools, they hunted for ancient aquatic monsters including giant carp.

Understanding the development vector of fishing in the ancient world is fraught with difficulty. To start with, it’s hard to even define what exactly “fishing” is. However, in this case, we must assume fishing to be more than reaching into a fish-filled stream and “cuddling” one out using one’s hands, and to involve the use of custom-made tools (fishing tackle).

Some of the fishing tackle found at the Hula Valley site in northern Israel.  (Prof. Gonen Sharon / Tel-Hai College / PLoS ONE)

With few exceptions, wooden rods, thin animal hair lines and organic lures and baits have all rotted to nothing in the environments in which they were left behind. However, the recent PLOS ONE study is based on the discovery of a collection of ancient fishing tackle that was made near the Jordan River in Hula Valley, northern Israel. And this set of fishing tackle represents the Holy Grail of the angling world.

Israel’s Jordan River dig site where the 12,000-year-old fishing tackle collection was unearthed. (Prof. Gonen Sharon, Tel-Hai College / PLoS ONE)

Examining The Ancient Hula Fishing Tackle Bag

The team, led by Antonella Pedergnana of the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum Archaeological research institute in Germany, analyzed a rare hoard of “19 bone fishhooks and six grooved stones.” According to an article in Science Focus, these carefully grooved stones were used as weights.

Together, as slim as the collection may sound, these ancient survival devices are the “largest ever discovered collection of early fishing technology.” For this reason, the researchers were able to extend their speculations into some of the actual fishing techniques that were deployed in waterways around 12,000 years ago.

Ask a fisherman to describe a fishhook and they will immediately ask you “for which species of fish?” Then, when the fish has been identified the angler will have to ask you “where” the fish is to be caught?

Fishermen have several types of hooks for each species, in any given environment. Thus, it is perhaps no surprise Professor Sharon said the ancient collection contained a “huge variety in the hooks.” In fact, the researchers found “no two hooks were similar,” in that each one was different in size and style. It was concluded that this variability alone highlights “the excellent knowledge these people had regarding fish behavior.”

Grooved stone inkers used for fishing in Israel’s Hula Valley 12,000 years ago. (Prof. Gonen Sharon / Tel-Hai College / PLoS ONE)

Fishing Is One Thing, But These Folk Were Also Luring

Prof Gonen Sharon of Tel-Hai College, Israel, told Jerusalem Post that the ancient hooks “are amazingly similar to modern hooks.” The scientist was not only referring to the apparent “dexterity” observed in their overall construction, or to the size of the hooks, but the study shows that they were all carefully “barbed” with tiny backward facing points.

This feature assured hooks snared inside fish jaws so when being pulled in they couldn’t escape while flipping around on the hooked line. Professor Gonen Sharon described this outer lower barb as a ‘“point of no return preventing the fish from escaping the hook.”

We aren’t talking about thin fishing hooks here, those delicate one’s designed to catch brown trout in gentle chalk streams. On the contrary, the fish bones discovered at the Lake Hula site include “giant carp that measured over 2 meters in length,” according to the study.

Furthermore, unlike most modern hooks that have metal loops to hold lines, this ancient collection didn’t feature drilled holes, but rather, they had “sophisticated and diverse methods of attaching the line to the hook using “grooves, bulges and sophisticated knots, and even the use of glue,” wrote the scientists. Furthermore, plant fiber residues sampled from the bends of the hooks indicate the fishers were making and fishing with artificial lures.

What a complete hook and lure would have looked like. (Prof. Gonen Sharon,Tel-Hai College / PLoS ONE)

A Rare Tool Bag From A Transitionary Time

The advanced fishing technologies represented in Israel’s ancient fishing tackle bag were born at the beginning of the Neolithic Revolution. At this time disparate groups of hunters began settling at traditional hunting stations, which required constant food supplies. In the beginning, with failed crops occurring regularly, fishing was an essential survival function at this transitionary stage between hunting and farming.

Professor Sharon said in the new study that the ancient fishermen needed to know “that some fish species hunt by attacking insects near the water surface and will attack an artificial bite that pretends to be a fly.” This use of “fly fishing,” said the researcher, indicates that by around 11,000 BC people in the Middle East “had a full and deep knowledge of fish behavior around the Hula Lake.” And the Hula Valley fishing tools shows this knowledge was in full swing by 12,000 BC, just like their bespoke wooden fishing poles, most of which have vanished into the soils of time.

Top image: Representation of a full set of the fishing tackle found at the Hula Valley site in northern Israel.                       Source: Emanuela Cristiani / PLoS ONE

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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