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American Association for the Advancement of Science

The world's first fish hooks?

A complete shell fish hook from the Pleistocene levels of a cave site at the east end of Timor. This hook is made on Trochus shell and is dated to ~11,000 cal years BP.
[Image courtesy of Susan O'Connor]

Researchers in East Timor, a country in Southeast Asia, have discovered the remains of large fish and fishing gear in a shelter that was used by early humans long ago. The remains include some fish hooks made out of bone and they appear to be 42,000 years old, which suggests that early humans were fishing in the open ocean much earlier than researchers had thought.

Sue O'Connor and colleagues, who made the discovery, knew that early humans had been crossing the open oceans as long as 50,000 years ago. (After all, the only way to get to Australia back then was by boat!) But, the only prior evidence of fishing has been from about 12,000 years ago.

Now, these researchers' findings in East Timor suggest that early humans were not only good sailorsóbut they were also effective deep-sea fishers by 42,000 years ago. A report about their discovery appears in the 25 November issue of the journal Science.

O'Connor and her colleagues say that their findings represent the first use of fish hooks on record and they describe the remains of large fish, like tuna, that were found at the shelter.

These big fish are said to be pelagic, because they live near the ocean's surface or down further in the water column. Catching them requires a lot of planning and technology, and the researchers say that early humans must have developed these skills much earlier than expected.