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Holy mackerel! Civilisation begins with fishing

It wasn’t agriculture and husbandry but the need to fish that shaped society and the modern world, argues Brian Fagan

18 November 2017

9:00 AM

18 November 2017

9:00 AM

Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilisation Brian Fagan

Yale, pp.346, £25

Fish. Slippery, mysterious creatures. They are mysterious because of where they live, in vast waters, and because they elude the historical record, too: fishing equipment is soft and decays (bamboo, hemp, lines made from kelp, cedar bark, women’s hair).

Brian Fagan is an archaeologist, a profession that we associate with dust and soil and stone, but here he attempts to capture the history of fishing in ancient civilisation. It is not just fish that elude the historian: fisherfolk have always lived on the margins — of land and in recorded history (and still do). ‘To a scholar,’ writes Fagan, ‘the illiterate fishing people of the past are elusive, and their trade is a challenging puzzle of clues.’ So assembling a history of fishing means, well, fishing among archaeology, anthropology, history, marine biology and oceanography and paleoclimatology — ‘to mention only a few’.

Fagan has to fish deeply sometimes and into unexpected places. He investigates the ears of several-thousand-year-old men buried in what is now Israel, which show damage consistent with diving in cold, deep water. He uncovers the giant middens of mollusc shells that appear all over the planet, because though molluscs yield a tiny amount of protein — they are ‘small meat packages sealed in heavy inedible shells’ — they are easy to catch. ‘To knock a limpet from a rock,’ wrote Darwin, ‘does not require even cunning, that lowest power of the mind.’ Darwin was wrong: the ability to subsist on shellfish allowed humans to live through the lean seasons. It enabled survival.

Fishing, writes Fagan, ‘has created the modern world’. It is a startling claim, particularly given the wont of prehistorians to focus on hunting, gathering and then agriculture. Shellfish collectors, wrote one eminent prehistorian, ‘are normally associated with a low level of culture’. The people of Pinnacle Point on the South African coast who lived 165,000 years ago, collected molluscs to eat. More importantly, they used mollusc shells as adornment. This, says Fagan, ‘is the earliest known sign of the changes that result in today’s cognitive skills’. It is when humans began to be human.


After the Ice Age, people took to boats, so fish spurred mobility and migration. Humans were mobile already, following prey, but it was probably because of fishing that they made the first water voyages, and then they kept going. ‘The search for fish enabled these migrations in two ways: it spurred continual technological refinement of boats and it gave people a reason to undertake long journeys.’

Fishing is also perhaps how social hierarchies began, when fishing — ‘around 17,000 years ago’ — became more systematic, and lucrative. Tools were developed: fish hooks and barbs that have remained, and some of which haven’t changed much in millennia, because they work. People had particular tasks and jobs. Hierarchies were built along with more permanent settlements. Without fisherfolk and their catches, ‘the pharaohs could never have built the pyramids of Giza’. Slaves and labourers were given dried fish as rations. Catfish, which pound for pound has more fat than grazing mammals, were easily caught in the shallows of the Nile when it flooded yearly, and could be processed, dried and stored. The pyramid town at Giza, which catered to the workforce, had a large fish-processing factory.

Equally important to the Roman Empire was a stinky fish sauce called garum. Rich Romans had hugely expensive fresh fish living in hugely expensive pools; but most Romans ate garum, consisting of fermented intestines and made to secret recipes never divulged, the Coca-Cola of the ancient world. (Though Coke has probably not been used to cure dog bits and remove unwanted body hair. At least, not that I know of.)

Don’t read this book with the Blue Planet in mind. Fish are cast as food. Yet startling facts emerge now and then. The halibut, from the family of right-eye flounders, swims like a salmon, an eye on each side of its head, until the age of six months, when ‘one eye migrates over the top of the head to join the other, so that it resembles a flounder’. What? An eye migration?

The clarias, a Nile catfish, can move overland. Tuna can travel at 64 kilometres per hour. And the huso huso, the Beluga sturgeon, can live for 118 years, weigh 250 kilograms and reach six metres in length. It can kill a man with a swipe of its tail. Given how sturgeon and other fish stocks have been destroyed by human greed, we could wish that it had swished more often. But the collapse of fish stocks is not Fagan’s focus, any more than is the environmental devastation of the oceans. There are already plenty of books on that, he writes, ‘and I have neither the qualifications nor the desire to add one more’.

Instead, his gaze is firmly historical, at the ancient peoples who turned fish into the staple food it now is. This understanding is new: until technology improved and mesh sieves got smaller, the better to capture tiny fish bones, most fishing was assumed to be opportunistic, not systemic. Humans were hunter-gatherers, with the occasional forays into mollusc- or fish-eating. ‘In the early 20th century most excavators who discovered fish bones considered it sufficient to say that the inhabitants fished.’ Fish was discarded as a topic of interest to academics. It was unworthy, just as in Homer, who thought heroes ate oxen, not fish.

There are facts to be cherished in this book, but get used to the phrase ‘no one knows’, because it is repeated frequently. It’s a pleasing honesty that accepts the limit of understanding. Fagan’s habit of repeating things frequently is less endearing. Add that to an academic dryness and the book is harder going than it needed to be.

But wade through it anyway. These days, fishing is no less important than it was to the ancient people of Pinnacle Point, though for the first time we now eat more farmed than wild fish. Pollution and overfishing with greedy giant trawlers have characterised our recent history. Perhaps sustainable fishing and farming is our future, if we can learn from the past, however slippery.


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