Hook, line and thinker

Sue O'Connor. Photo by James Giggacher.
29 November 2012

The ground-breaking discovery of the world’s oldest evidence for marine fishing in East Timor has not just re-written the history books – it could shed new light on how humans first reached Australian shores, writes JAMES GIGGACHER.

In a small, shallow cave on the far northeastern tip of East Timor, lie the leftovers of possibly the most remarkable human meals ever consumed. And while food scraps may normally only excite those of us with an unusual love for washing the dishes, these remains are providing plenty of food for thought about some of the earliest humans, their ability to adapt and their success in populating this vast blue planet of ours.

Revealed in the deepest part of the excavation were the 42,000-year-old-bones of sharks and tuna dragged out of the nearby crystal blue waters by human hands. The discovery, made in the Jerimalai cave by Professor Sue O’Connor, an archaeologist in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, is the strongest evidence yet that humans were plying the deep blue sea for big fish millennia upon millennia ago and much earlier than previously thought.

“The site that we studied featured more than 38,000 fish bones from some 2,800 individual fish dating back 42,000 years,” says O’Connor. “What the cave site in East Timor has shown us is that early humans in Island Southeast Asia had amazingly advanced maritime skills. They were expert at catching the types of fish that would be challenging even today – fish like tuna. It’s a very exciting find.”

But, it’s not just the fish bones which are causing excitement. In addition to unearthing the oldest evidence for pelagic fishing (the hunting of fast-swimming ocean fish species), O’Connor also uncovered the earliest recorded fish hook in her excavations.

“We found a fish hook, made from a shell, which dates to between 23,000 and 16,000 years ago. This is, we believe, the earliest known example of a fish hook and shows that our ancestors were skilled crafts people as well as fishers,” says O’Connor.

“When I got the radio-carbon date on the hook back from the lab, I just realised how world-breaking this discovery was. What made the discovery so unusual is the age of the hook, because fish hooks in Southeast Asia are supposed to post-date Austronesian expansion about 4,000 years ago. So what we have here is the oldest evidence for pelagic fishing as well as the oldest fish hook found anywhere in the world.

“And while the hooks don’t seem suitable for pelagic fishing, it is possible that other types of hooks were being made at the same time.  It’s still not entirely clear what method the occupants of Jerimalai used to capture the pelagic fish or even the shallow water species.

“But, tuna can be caught in purse seines or leader nets, or by using hooks and trolling. Simple fish aggregating devices such as tethered logs can also be used to attract them. So they may have been caught using hooks or nets. Either way, it seems certain that these people were using quite sophisticated technology and watercraft to fish offshore.”

It’s this level of technological sophistication which O’Connor thinks can help answer another question that has long puzzled archaeologists and historians; by what means modern humans reached Australia.

“The first people reached Australia 50,000 years ago and probably earlier,” says O’Connor. “But, this has always been a bit of a conundrum because people have looked at Australia and said that Indigenous people in Australia did not have very sophisticated maritime skills – there is no evidence of them using big boats and they were only using little canoes and rafts on the coasts at the time Europeans reached here.

“So how people got here at such an early date has always been puzzling. These new finds from Jerimalai cave go a long way to solving the puzzle.”

According to O’Connor the pieces of the puzzle have now become a lot clearer. She says that the maritime skills and complex technologies modern humans possessed 42,000 years ago meant they had the capability to start the journey through Island Southeast Asia to Australia. And while we don’t know how many of the region’s then 17,000 landmasses modern humans did reach, they did use some of them to island-hop their way to the Great Southern Land.

But like any good meal, O’Connor’s discovery comes with a third course. She adds that the finds in Jerimalai cave not only point to our ancestors’ technical prowess and sense of adventure, but also reveal our species success in adapting to unfamiliar circumstances, terrain and territories. For the ancient anglers of Jerimalai, their ocean fishing and marine technology was a matter of making the most of their environment in order to survive.

“Often we assume that what was happening with colonisation 50,000 years ago consisted of people moving from one good fishing spot to another type,” says O’Connor. “But, perhaps it was more focused; perhaps right from the start, what set modern humans apart was an incredibly flexible and versatile strategy where they would get into new islands and turn their attention to any type of fauna available, because they had this really flexible and advanced technology. 

“For years people in Australia would say ‘well you know people crossing to Australia must have had real trouble coming to terms with the Australian fauna because it is so unfamiliar; you leave mainland Asia with all these ungulates and deer and so on, and you come to Australia and it’s all marsupial fauna, it’s completely unfamiliar’. But, clearly the fauna in Australia was quite abundant 45,000 to 50,000 years ago; there’s a whole range of marsupial species, they’re quite big, they’re not predators, the majority of the fauna that people were dealing with are not going to be preying on humans who get here, as opposed to mainland Asia.

“So, it doesn’t strike me that the big challenge would be once people arrived in Australia where they would have abundant ecosystems and different fauna; the big challenge is these tiny islands in the middle, between Southeast Asia and Australia which don’t have very much at all in the way of terrestrial fauna, but they do have a lot of marine resources. So that’s where the pelagic fishing comes in – the fact that modern humans could do that and turn their hand to something that difficult and technologically challenging 45,000 years ago I think tells us a lot.”

O’Connor is about to head back into the field in Sulawesi to see what else she can dig up on our ancestors’ incredible technical and globe-trotting feats. Having just won a five-year Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship, she and her team will extend and build on their work in East Timor as well as test which route modern humans took and how rapidly they spread through Island Southeast Asia. And, even if she finds the tiniest morsel, it’s bound to be an appetising entry enriching the menu of human discovery.

Unearthing new talent
Earlier this year Professor Sue O’Connor was named the 2012 Kathleen Fitzpatrick Australian Laureate Fellow by the Australian Research Council. The prestigious fellowship will see her undertake a five-year research project building on her discovery in East Timor and investigating modern human dispersal, adaptation and behaviour en route to Australia.

The fellowship, which O’Connor says she is “extremely honoured to have won”, is awarded to a highly-ranked female from the humanities, arts and social sciences, and carries an ambassadorial role to promote women in research. O’Connor says she will use the award to investigate another mystery of modern archaeology – the case of disappearing female practitioners.

“I see myself as an ambassador for early-career researchers because the future of any discipline lies in the young people who are going to be the future generation of researchers,” she says.

“One of the things that I’ve said I want to do in the Laureate is look at the transition from female PhD students to researchers, because in archaeology, while it’s a subject that attracts a lot of female students, when you look at that transition into postdoctoral positions across the subject area and Australia, you find that the ratio drops. And when you look at the mid-career level and the further up you go, the fewer female researchers you get.”

According to O’Connor its Australia’s large mining companies, with their lure of money and job security, which are snapping up young female archaeologists.

“I think in Australia, in archaeology particularly, because of the mining boom, we’ve had a lot of consulting archaeology; it’s big. There are jobs all the time advertising for consulting archaeologists, they pay well and there fairly stable positions. So I think on the one hand you can attempt to hang on as an early-career researcher and get teaching positions or postdocs and spend a lot of time reapplying for things and struggling with gaps between employment, or you can go into more stable employment in the consulting and management sphere.

“So what I am interested in doing is looking at why this might be and how we might get more retention for female archaeology PhD graduates.”

A version of this article was first published in the Summer 2012 edition of ANU Reporter.

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Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team