Hook find reveals women did the hard work


12,000 years ago, fishing gear was part of funeral practice in Indonesia. Andrew Masterson reports.


Fish-hooks placed around the neck and jaws of an adult Indonesian woman.
Fish-hooks placed around the neck and jaws of an adult Indonesian woman.
O'Connor et al, ANU

The discovery of five 12,000-year-old fish-hooks has exploded the assumption that during the Pleistocene era fishing was men's work.

In a paper published in the journal Antiquity, a team led by Sue O’Connor from the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, reports finding fish-hooks fashioned from sea snail shells in a rock shelter on the island of Alor in Indonesia.

The hooks had been deployed as grave goods – items left on or next to a corpse. In this case, they had been placed carefully under the chin and around the jaws of a deceased adult female.

Items used in burial or other funeral practices provide strong clues to the cultural values of the people involved, because they are inevitably either items associated with the person during life or things thought to be required for success in the afterlife.

“These are the oldest known fish-hooks associated with mortuary practices from anywhere in the world and perhaps indicate that fishing equipment was viewed as essential for transition to the afterlife in this area,” O’Connor explains.

Prior to this find, the oldest known funeral-associated fish-hooks dated to around 9000 years ago, and were found in an area known as the Ershi cemetery in Siberia.

There have been several finds of substantially older hooks, with discoveries in Japan, Europe and East Timor stretching back 22,000 years, but these have not been associated with death.

“The discovery shows that in both life and death, the Pleistocene inhabitants of the Alor Island region were intrinsically connected to the sea, and the association of the fish-hooks with a burial denotes the cosmological status of fishing in this island environment,” says O’Connor.

The fish-hooks were of two types – the familiar J-shaped hook, and another, more circular variant known as a “rotating” hook.

The discovery of the rotating hooks seems to clarify another issue regarding the development of fishing in ancient times.

Similar models have been found in Japan, Australia, the Middle East, South America and the Pacific islands. One theory suggests that the hooks were invented just once and spread gradually, from culture to culture.

The Alor find – which dates comparatively early and was found on an island cut-off from major trade or migration routes – implies a different story.

“We argue that the same sort of artefact was developed independently because it was the most fitting form to suit the ecology, rather than through cultural diffusion,” says O’Connor.

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Andrew Masterson is news editor of Cosmos.
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