8 December 2011

An archaeologist from The University of Queensland is part of a team led by Professor Sue O’Connor (ANU) that reported one of the world's oldest pieces of evidence of deep-sea fishing in the journal Science, showing that 42,000 years ago, our regional ancestors had mastered one of our nation's favourite pastimes.

Professor Sue O’Connor made the discovery at Jerimalai cave in East Timor, where she also found the earliest known example of a fishhook. Dr Chris Clarkson examined the stone tools from the site and pointed to their strong similarity with those made by modern humans elsewhere along the early dispersal route out of Africa.

Dr Clarkson said the findings made by Professor O’Connor and team from the Jerimalai site demonstrated that 42,000 years ago, our regional ancestors had high-level maritime skills, and by implication the technology needed to make the ocean crossings to reach Australia.

The study found more than 38,000 fish bones from 2843 individual fish dating back 42,000 years from the site, implying that the inhabitants were indeed fishing in the deep sea.

The shell fish hook found by Professor O’Connor dates to between 23,000 and 16,000 years ago, showing that early human colonists were skilled crafts' people as well as fishers.

The article states there is no evidence of hook-and-line fishing of this antiquity anywhere else in the world. The fact that it first appeared on our doorstep made it “extremely exciting and significant” Dr Clarkson said.

"It appears people had already been reliant on fish at the site for more than 20,000 years by the time these shell fish hooks appeared. We also know that the earliest colonists of our region were capable of long-distance sea voyaging," he said.

"Essentially, what Professor O’Connor found at Jerimalai is evidence of an innovative, marine-adapted population engaged in very sophisticated subsistence at around the time many higher latitude populations were forced into glacial refugia."

What is still unclear however is how ancient people were able to catch these fast-moving deep-ocean fish.

"Fisherman today say it is certainly possible to catch tuna and other pelagic species from the shore from time to time, but the team think it is unlikely that this would explain the high proportion of pelagic fish bone found in the lowest layers at the site," Dr Clarkson said.

The study found that more than half the very abundant fish bone at the site is from these difficult-to-catch pelagic species. This suggests systematic targeting of these species, possibly involving capture from boats, the use of nets, or some means of attracting the fish.

"It would be nice to think a sophisticated technology was in use, but we just don't know what it was yet. We're hopeful that new excavations at the site will help reveal that."

The recent findings from Jerimalai cave have brought researchers a step closer to solving the mystery of how Australia's ancient ancestors arrived at least 50,000 years ago.

"Boats were probably necessary for people to cross from Island Southeast Asia into Australia before 50,000 years ago. Even greater voyages were made out to islands of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands more than 40,000 years ago," Dr Clarkson said.

"The evidence from Jerimalai is the first to conclusively demonstrate that early colonists in this region had the technical capacities to exist on marine foods and plan voyages into the open ocean at this time. I’m hoping the stone tools will also help reveal more about the technological skills and activities of the early colonists of SE Asia."

Dr Clarkson and his colleagues have published their findings in the latest issue of Science.

Media: Dr Chris Clarkson on (07) 3365 3235 or email c.clarkson@uq.edu.au or Kristen Bastian on (07) 3346 9279 or email k.bastian@uq.edu.au.