ANU study sheds new light on fishing throughout history



IMAGE: This is the excavation site on Alor Island.
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Credit: ANU

A new study by the Australian National University (ANU) has unveiled new insights into ancient fishing throughout history, including the type of fish that people regularly eat as part of their diet.

The study looked at fish bones unearthed at an archaeological excavation on the Indonesian island of Alor – home to the world's oldest hooks ever found at a human burial site dating back to about 12,000 years.

Lead archaeologist Dr. Sofia Samper Carro of the ANU School of Archeology and Anthropology said the study identified a change in fishing behavior some 7,000 years ago.

"People in Alor were fishing for open water species about 20,000 years ago, and about 7,000 years ago they started fishing exclusively for species living on reefs," she said.

Dr. Samper Carro said that a similar pattern was identified on the neighboring island of Timor, indicating that the change in behavior was due to environmental circumstances.

"It appears to be due to changes in sea level and environmental conditions, although man-induced changes can not be ruled out," she said.

The results were possible through the use of an analysis method traditionally used in biology to identify the habitat of fish in archaeological material.
Samper Carro said she was forced to try a new approach because of the difficulty in determining the difference between bones resembling the 2,000 known species of fish in the area.

"This study is the first time researchers have been able to safely determine the fish habitat using vertebrae through this method, and represents a significant advance in the ability to track human behavior throughout history," said Samper Carro.

"Most of the bones you find in archaeological sites are vertebrae, which are very complicated to identify for species and all look very similar.

"If we do not know the species, we do not know its habitat.

"In Indonesia you have more than 2,000 species of fish, so to find out which bones pertain to which species you would need from 2,000 species of fish in your comparative collection.

"I probably spent five months trying to match each fish vertebra with one species and I think I went through 100 of 9,000 bones, so I had to find another method."

Dr. Samper Carro, in turn, turned to geometric morphometry, a process that analyzes small differences in size and shape of physical objects. Using more than 20,000 digital images and plotting 31 points on each bone, she was able to digitally identify the likely habitat of each vertebra.


The research was published in the November Journal of Archaeological Sciencehttps: //www.sciencedirect.with /Science/article /pii /S030544031830551X


Dr Sofia Samper Car

ANU Archeology and Anthropology School

T: 02 6125 2902

E: [email protected] "> [email protected]


Aaron Walker

ANU Media

T: 02 6125 7979

M: 0418 307 213

E: [email protected] "> [email protected]

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