World’s Oldest Fish Hooks Discovered in Japan

September 19, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Photo credit: National Academy of Sciences (image has been cropped)

23,000-year-old hooks were carved out of sea shells.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, archaeologists report the discovery the world’s oldest fish hooks in a cave on Okinawa Island, off the coast of Japan.

These ancient fish hooks, which date back nearly 23,000 years, belonged to the world’s earliest fishermen — descendants of the first humans to appear on the island, roughly 30,000 years ago.

Unlike the Paleolithic people on the mainland who were using stone tools, those living on the island carved their tools exclusively out of seashells, and their fish hooks were no exception.

Before the cave was discovered, it was believed that resources were too scarce on the Okinawa Island for humans during that time period, with their simple tools, to have eked out a decent living.

But the discovery of sophisticated fishing gear, along with evidence of burnt eels, frogs, fish, birds, and small mammals, suggests the humans living there were relatively well fed.

Based on charred freshwater crab remains found in the cave, the authors also believe that these fishermen were attuned to the seasonal availability of their resources. The remains mainly consist of larger crabs, which are captured in the autumn as they migrate downstream. “This is also the season when they are the most delicious,” they write.

Early fish hooks dating between 16,000 and 23,000 years ago have been found on the island of Timor, and others found in Papua New Guinea date between 18,000 and 20,000 years ago. But, according to the authors, when you account for the margin of error inherent in radiocarbon dating, the newly discovered pair of fish hooks predate these other specimens. 

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