Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Deep Sea Fishing - oldest known evidence

According to a paper published in Science  Excavations in Jerimalai on the eastern end of East Timor of the earliest known fish hooks. The earliest known boats come from France and the Netherlands and are 10,000 years old. The excavations at this cave by Sue O'Connor and her team from the ANU have uncovered evidence suggesting that deep sea fishing may have been taking place by 42,000 BP, the age of the earliest levels of the site that has been excavated. About 56 % of the fish remains found at the site are from pelagic, fast-swimming species that are found in deep water, indicating that some form of water craft capable of taking the fishermen some distance from the shore to reach the deep water was being used. Also found at the site are fish hooks made from mollusc shells, that at 23,000-16,000 BP are the oldest known fish hooks in the world.

There are those who disagree with the suggestion that the presence of pelagic fish among the remains indicates deep sea fishing, suggesting that as many of fish are smaller than the full adult size they could be juveniles that strayed close to shore. Some have pointed out that because of the steep topography of the seabed around such islands as Timor the deep sea is comparatively close to the shore in places. O'Connor has countered that because they are fast-moving fish they would be very difficult to spear while so near the shore.

The well-preserved bones from Jerimalai Cave of animals and fish, with a total of 38,000 fish bones from 2843 individuals fish. As fish comprised more than half the bones at the site they must have been the staple diet of the inhabitants.  Among the deep sea fish present are grouper, parrotfish, trigger fish and snapper. There were also the bones of marine turtles, sharks and many shellfish. A mystery that has also been seen in parts of Australia is that the the proportion of deep sea fish in the diet declined over time until by 5,500 BP it was down to 24 %. The island lacked animals larger than snakes and bats, making the sea food an important part of the diet.

According to Prof. Nick Barton, palaeolithic archaeology at University of Oxford, "it provides some of the oldest tangible evidence of sea fishing using line anywhere in the world and offers growing support for an early southern route into the Sahul by seafaring modern humans. It also stokes the current controversy over Homo floresiensis. Why did modern humans apparently not use Flores as a stepping stone island en route to Australia?"

Acceding to Graeme Barker2, professor of archaeology at the University of Cambridge "the humble fish hook discovered by the ANU team is testimony to the extraordinary capacity of our direct ancestors to invent new technologies and develop new behaviours to deal with unfamiliar environments as they encountered them. This adaptive plasticity appears to have been the main reason why they were able to out-compete other hominin species, such as the Neanderthals of Europe and the 'hobbits' of Flores, so successfully."

Evidence has been provided  by these discoveries that suggests the earliest people to colonise Australia had advanced skills with regard to working stone, bone and wood, as well as some form of watercraft capable of crossing stretches of ocean, such as the short distances between islands and between the nearest island and the mainland of Australia.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Balter, M., When Humans First Plied the Deep Blue Sea, Science, 24 November 2011 2:00 pm
  2. McDonald, C., 28-Nov-2011, Oldest Evidence of Deep Sea Fishing Found, Cosmos


  1. When Humans First Plied the Deep Blue Sea
  2. Oldest evidence of deep-sea fishing found
Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 21/12/2011



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