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Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization

Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization

By Brian Fagan. Pp. xvi + 346. Yale University Press, New Haven 2017. $30. ISBN 978-0-300-21534-2 (cloth).

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Fagan outlines the history of civilization through human settlement and subsistence patterns demonstrating the significance of fish and other marine products. Animal scavenging and plant foraging evolved into hunting and plant gathering, while fish catching, initially, was only a stopgap (x). An example of such hominin “opportunistic eating” (21) is evidenced at Olduvai Gorge sites of 1.75 million years ago, where catfish and animal bones are intermingled with stone artifacts. Supporting this view are Dubois’ Homo erectus finds in Java (23) and Alperson-Afil’s contemporary discoveries at Gesher-Benot Yu’aqov, Israel, from at least 700,000 years ago (24, 312).

Plant and animal domestication, then agriculture and stock raising around 12,000 years ago, stimulated population increase. The impetus was climatic and geologic change as Pleistocene glaciers retreated, global warming ensued, and meltwaters reshaped the landscape, forcing adaptation. Each cultural group faced unique problems. In Europe, glacial meltwaters created treacherous currents and storms in the shallow North Sea 7,500 years ago, threatening travel and fishing (45). In Florida’s lowlands, ca. 7000 B.C.E., glacial meltwater receded, creating bogs, swamps, and rich fish habitats, where mobile human populations were “subject to even minor changes in sea level” (114). Instability of climate forced rescheduling to replenish food supplies with emphasis on traditional resources and increased dependency on fishing and mollusk collection (ix). In Egypt and throughout the Mediterranean world, fishers were major suppliers of food for “those laboring on public works and serving in armies. Fish were part of the rations . . . the significant step from opportunism to commodification” (159). Other quotes broaden descriptions. The 16th-century view of fishers by Roberts, a merchant and writer, is a case in point: “Their lives may be compared to [that of] the Otter, which [is] spent halfe on lande and halfe in Sea” (273). Fagan notes that elite Romans of 46–45 B.C.E., had personal eel ponds and pet eels and “even adorned their pet eels with jewels” (175).

Multidisciplinary contributions to archaeological research provide fresh approaches to the significance of fish in cultural evolution. Fagan’s nautical knowledge, along with his observation of and discussion with fishers, enrich part 1. Early cities developed in well-watered regions including the eastern Mediterranean, Asia, and the Americas (141). Authoritarian leadership of complex ranked societies controlled resource acquisition and distribution. Depletion of fish and other natural resources necessitated creative approaches to meet the demand (141–45). Part 2 emphasizes techniques for acquisition of mass quantities of fish. Pharaonic Egypt’s transitory fishing villages with vast fish-drying factories on the Nile, the Italian “mattanza” for capturing spawning tuna by the thousands, the Roman empire’s artificial ponds for intensive fish collection (177–78), and China’s pre-3500 B.C.E. extensive carp aquaculture (212–13) all addressed resource depletion. Such approaches perpetuated existing strategies for answering demands for more resources from perceived endless supplies. The title and tone of part 3, “The End of Plenty,” reviews previous human exploitation patterns of the planet's resources (137). Despite differences in the focus of human societies, fishing became “our last major source of food from the wild” (xiii).

The book’s regional and geological descriptions, cultural chronologies, maps with place names discussed, and environmental changes are broad-ranging but concise. Illustrations reflect the rich multicultural emphasis and breadth of knowledge Fagan’s writings demonstrate. He includes his early research projects among African groups as well as other native peoples, both prehistoric and ethnographic, in North America and elsewhere, to enrich and support data, and he credits the experienced fishers, shellfish collectors, and sailors who contributed to his studies. Without fail, he cites those who provided information. One example is Curtis Marean 's 10-year study of 160,000 Homo erectus'  exploitation of mollusks adjacent to caves near Pinnacle Point, South Africa 160,000 years ago (26-27). Meehan’s 1970s ethnographic study of the Anbarra, an Australian Gidjingali Aborigine group, documents regular exploitation of shellfish, generating large middens. It is another example Fagan cites (50–3). Fagan states: “The strategy works; midden excavations in neighboring areas chronicle at least six thousand years of shellfish collecting” (51). More support for this ethnographic analogy are archaeological midden excavations documenting about 6,000 years of shellfish collection in neighboring areas of Australia (51).

Changes in historic interpretations and improvements in scientific data analysis show why some previous research techniques and viewpoints are revised. Significant cultural, historic, and political perspectives coloring earlier interpretations are included and are explained. Today’s archaeological term “kitchen midden” and the study of change in mollusk shell size through time were coined in the 19th century by  Danish zoologist Steenstrup, who “identified changes in mollusk-collecting habits in kitchen middens through time, something that did not take hold in wider archaeological circles for generations” (47–8).

In instances where researchers changed their viewpoints, Fagan credits their new insights. For example, “eminent British prehistorian Grahame Clark . . . wrote in 1952 that ‘a diet in which shellfish are the mainstay is normally associated with a low level of culture’” (48). Later, Clark changed his views based on studies of ancient Scandinavian shellfish-using cultures (48). Another time, fish bones from an African farming village about 1,000 years old were discarded by a researcher as unidentifiable. Later, Fagan’s research team found fish bones at the waterlogged, well-preserved, 3,000-year-old Gwisho site. A Zambian fisheries official identified and compared them to local, contemporary catfish (1). Today’s multidisciplinary studies of the earliest entry routes into the Americas focus on coastal, not inland, corridors, where marine and terrestrial resources could be exploited (74–5).

From fish grabbing to Hugo Grotius’ 1609 legal principle that by international law the sea is free for all nations to use (330), humanity's outlook must change. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports resource decline; Pauly and Zeller of the University of British Columbia document worse losses (297, 330). Fagan warns that “the issue now is how to continue fishing in a depleted ocean while also conserving it. . . . Within a few generations almost all the fish eaten on earth will be farmed. A strategy developed by Egyptian officials, Roman sybarites, and Chinese carp farmers may finally supersede well over a million years of fishing in the wild” (302–3).

Ellis McDowell-Loudan []

Book Review of Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization, by Brian Fagan

Reviewed by Ellie McDowell-Loudan

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 1 (January 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1231.mcdowell


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