Prehistoric people who lived on Indonesia’s rugged and remote Alor Island held fishing in such high importance that even the dead were supplied with equipment for snagging a fresh catch. While digging at an archaeological site on the island’s south coast in 2014, scientists found a group of ancient fish hooks, which were buried with an adult human around 12,000 years ago. They’re the oldest fishhooks to ever be discovered in a grave, according to a new report published in the journal Antiquity.
Archaeologists from Australian National University found the partial skeleton while excavating an early rock shelter on Alor’s west coast. The bones—which appeared to belong to a female—were interred with five circular one-piece fish hooks made from sea snail shell. Also found was a perforated bivalve shell, buried beneath the skeleton’s chin. It’s unclear what purpose this artifact served, but experts did note that it had been smoothed and polished, and appeared to have once been dyed red.
Researchers used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of charcoal samples found near the burial ground. From this, they determined that the fish hooks and human remains were buried during the Pleistocene Epoch.
Alor Island, the largest island in the volcanic Alor Archipelago, is rocky and lacks a variety of plant life and protein sources. For these reasons, fish was likely an important staple food for ancient residents, and the act of fishing may have also been considered cosmologically important, archaeologists say.
The burial on Alor Island "represents the earliest-known example of a culture for whom fishing was clearly an important activity among both the living and the dead,” the study's authors wrote. Additionally, if the skeleton indeed belonged to a woman (the bones themselves haven't yet been conclusively identified), the hooks might suggest that women in ancient Alor were tasked with hook-and-line fishing, just like those in ancient Australia.
Archaeologists have identified prehistoric fishing hooks at sites around the world. They range from 23,000-year-old hooks, discovered on Japan’s Okinawa Island (the world’s oldest-known fishing implements), to slate hooks from Siberia’s late Mesolithic period (the second-oldest hooks ever found in a gravesite).
The fishing hooks discovered on Alor are circular instead of J-shaped, and resemble other ancient hooks that were once used in countries like Japan, Australia, Mexico, and Chile. Some experts have suggested that these similarities in technology were the result of migration, cultural contact, or even from fish hooks left in migrating tuna. The researchers at Australian National University argue against this theory, hypothesizing that the similarly shaped hooks are instead evidence of “convergent cultural evolution in technology” around the globe.