Ancient History of Fishing

The Great Fish Market, painted by Jan Brueghel the Elder

Fishing is a prehistoric custom dating back at least 40,000 years. Since the 16th century, fishing boats have been able to cross oceans in pursuit of fish, and since the 19th century, it has been possible to use larger vessels and in some cases process the fish on board. Fish are commonly caught in the wild. Techniques for catching fish include hand gathering, spearing, netting, angling, and trapping.

Here is the brief history of Fishing

Fishing is an aged practice that dates back at least to the Upper Paleolithic period which began about 40,000 years ago. Isotopic examination of the skeletal remains of Tianyuan man, a 40,000-year-old present-day human from eastern Asia, has shown that he regularly consumed freshwater fish. Archaeological features such as shell middens, discarded fish bones, and cave paintings show that sea foods were necessary for survival and consumed in significant quantities. During this period, most people lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and were, of compulsion, constantly on the move. However, where there are early examples of stable settlements (though not necessarily permanently occupied) such as those at Lepenski Vir, they are almost always correlated with fishing as a major source of food.

Spearfishing with barbed poles (harpoons) was widespread in paleolithic times. Cosquer cave in Southern France contains cave art over 16,000 years old, including pictures of seals which appear to have been harpooned.

The Neolithic culture and technology expanded worldwide between 4,000 and 8,000 years ago. With the new technologies of agriculture and pottery came primary forms of the main fishing methods that are still used today.

From 7500 to 3000 years ago, Native Americans of the California coast were known to engage in fishing with gorge hook and line tackle. In addition, some tribes are known to have used plant toxins to influence torpor in-stream fish to enable their capture.

Copper harpoons were known to the seafaring Harappans well into antiquity. Early hunters in India include the Mincopie people, indigenous inhabitants of India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands, who have used harpoons with long cords for fishing since early times.

Early history

The ancient river Nile was full of fish; fresh and dried fish were a staple food for much of the population. The Egyptians developed various tools and methods for fishing and these are clearly illustrated in tomb scenes, drawings, and papyrus documents. Simple reed boats served for fishing. Woven nets, weir baskets made from willow branches, harpoons and hook and line (the hooks having a length of between eight millimeters and eighteen centimeters) were all being used. By the 12th dynasty, metal hooks with barbs were being used. As is fairly common today, the fish were clubbed to death after capture. Nile perch, catfish, and eels were among the most important fish. Some representations hint at fishing being pursued as a pastime.

There are numerous references to fishing in ancient literature; in most cases, however, the descriptions of nets and fishing-gear do not go into detail, and the equipment is described in general terms. An early example from the Bible in Job 41:7: Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish spears?

Unlike in Minoan culture, fishing scenes are rarely represented in ancient Greek culture, a reflection of the low social status of fishing. There is a wine cup, dating from c. 500 BC, that shows a boy crouched on a rock with a fishing-rod in his right hand and a basket in his left. In the water below there is a rounded object of the same material with an opening on the top. This has been identified as a fish-cage used for keeping live fish, or as a fish-trap. It is clearly not a net. This object is currently in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Oppian of Corylus, a Greek author wrote a major treatise on sea fishing, the Halieulica or Halieutika, composed between 177 and 180. This is the earliest such work to have remained intact to the modern-day. Oppian describes various means of fishing including the use of nets cast from boats, scoop nets held open by a hoop, spears and tridents, and various traps “which work while their masters sleep”. Oppian’s description of fishing with a “motionless” net is also very interesting:

The fishers set up very light nets of buoyant flax and wheel in a circle round about while they violently strike the surface of the sea with their oars and make a din with sweeping blow of poles. At the flashing of the swift oars and the noise the fish bound in terror and rush into the bosom of the net which stands at rest, thinking it to be a shelter: foolish fishes which, frightened by a noise, enter the gates of doom. Then the fishers on either side hasten with the ropes to draw the net ashore.

The Greek historian Polybius (ca 203 BC–120 BC), in his Histories, details hunting for swordfish by using a harpoon with a barbed and detachable head.

Pictorial evidence of Roman fishing comes from mosaics that show fishing from boats with rod and line as well as nets. Various species such as conger, lobster, sea urchin, octopus, and cuttlefish are illustrated. In a parody of fishing, a type of gladiator called retiarius was armed with a trident and a casting-net. He would fight against the murmillo, who carried a short sword and a helmet with the image of a fish on the front.

In India, the Pandyas, a classical Tamil kingdom, were known for the pearl fishery as early as the 1st century BC. Their seaport Tuticorin was known for deep-sea pearl fishing. The paravas, a Tamil caste centered in Tuticorin, developed a rich community because of their pearl trade, navigation knowledge, and fisheries.

In Norse mythology, the sea giantess Rán uses a fishing net to trap lost sailors.

From ancient representations and literature, it is clear that fishing boats were typically small, lacking a mast or sail, and were only used close to the shore.

In traditional Chinese history, history begins with three semi-mystical and legendary individuals who taught the Chinese the arts of civilization around 2800–2600 BC: of these Fuxi was reputed to be the inventor of writing, hunting, trapping, and fishing.

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