History of fishing – fishing nets, shellfish, boats

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People probably began fishing in Africa, very early on in human history. Neanderthals were fishing by about 200,000 BC. Modern humans were gathering shellfish at Blombos Cave in South Africa by about 100,000 BC. The first people who left Africa, about 60,000 years ago, may have been following schools of fish along the African coast, then over to the Arabian Peninsula and along the coast to Iran, India, and further east, eventually following the fish to China, Japan, and the Americas. All over the world, where there’s good fishing, there are cities.

Egyptian painting of a fisherman diving to get his fishing net

Fisherman diving for his net (Grave of D2rj, Thebes, Egypt, ca. 2000 BC)

Fishing was super important for early people, and a lot of our early inventions happened around fish. People may have developed basketry for fish traps, and spinning and early forms of knitting in order to make fishing nets. Maybe they learned to swim in order to catch fish, too. Maybe they invented the atlatl to spear fish. Fishing people may also have invented canoes or boats made of bundles of reeds, sometime before 50,000 BC. Japanese people, who ate a lot of fish, made the first pottery jars, about 14,000 BC, to preserve fish by fermenting it. By 6000 BC, people in Brazil were also using pottery jars to ferment fish.

Ancient Greek vase showing a naked boy crouching on shore with a fishing pole and a crab trap

A boy fishing with a pole and lifting out a crab trap (Athens, 400s BC)

Just like today, early fishing people attached stones or bits of clay or lead to the bottom of the net to weight it down (so it wouldn’t float), and they attached bits of wood to the top (so it would float). A group of people would wade out into the ocean someplace where it was pretty shallow, and when they were out as far as the fish they would spread out the net, and walk forward, and then the people on the end would walk towards each other and close up the net, and they would all carry it back to the shore.

Roman mosaic of cherubs fishing with nets

Roman mosaic of cherubs fishing with nets, ca. 200 AD

If the water was deeper, you could also fish from small wooden boats or boats made from bundles of reeds, by dragging the net behind you for a while and then pulling it up into the boat. This is what Peter was doing when he first met Jesus, and that is what the people are doing in the Roman mosaic on this page. That’s fine for fishing close to the shore.

By the time of Jesus, though – and even centuries earlier – that’s not what most fishing looked like. Instead, organized industrial fishing companies caught a lot of deep-sea fish like tuna and salmon. They brought tons of fish to shore during the big tuna and salmon runs, and then processed them into fermented fish sauce in big industrial garum factories.

Learn by doing: Go fishing! (but be sure to get permits).
More about early boats

Bibliography and further reading about fishing:

Dietrich Sahrhage and Johannes Lundbeck, A History of Fishing (1992)

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By | 2017-08-08T00:40:11+00:00 June 12th, 2017|Africa, Economy, Food|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. History of fishing – fishing nets, shellfish, boats. Quatr.us Study Guides, June 12, 2017. Web. December 13, 2017.

About the Author:

Karen Carr

Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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