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World’s Oldest Fish Hooks Discovered in Okinawa

The 23,000-year-old barbs are made from snail shell. The discovery shows that early people had the resources to survive on the isolated island

(M. Fujita/PNAS)
smithsonian.com

Japan has long been on the cutting edge of technology, and that rang true even tens of thousands of years ago. Researchers on the island of Okinawa have unearthed a pair of 23,000-year-old fish hooks, the oldest ever discovered. The find, detailed in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, comes from Sakitari Cave on the southern coast of the island.

According to Michael Price at Science, the hooks are made from snail shell and were used by fisherman who seasonally occupied the limestone cavern to in order to exploit the migration of crabs and freshwater snails. One of the hooks is finished and the other is incomplete. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal discovered in the same layer as the hooks places them between 22,380 and 22,770 years old.

The hooks are older than previously discovered hooks including a 16,000-year old barb discovered on Timor and an 18,000-year-old hook discovered in Papua New Guinea, reports Emiko Jozuka at CNN.

But the hooks have more significance than just their age. Previously, researchers believed Okinawa was too resource-poor for Paleolithic people to live on. But the hooks mean that ancient modern humans had the technology to survive on Okinawa and other remote islands in the northern Pacific and that advanced maritime technology was not just confined to the islands around Australia.

Kate Lyons at The Guardian reports that researchers have been excavating three areas of the cave since 2009 and have found beads, tools and the charred remains of birds, mammals, frogs and eels indicating that early people found enough to eat on the island. In fact, people thrived there, and remains of freshwater crabs show that the human inhabitants waited until crab migration in the autumn when they are, as the scientists note, “the most delicious” before consuming them, meaning they were not struggling to find food.

The research also indicates humans may have inhabited Okinawa much longer than previously thought, and bones show people were able to catch fish from almost the beginning. “We found fish and human bones that dated back some 30,000 to 35,000 years,” Masaki Fujita, study co-author and curator at Okinawa Prefectural and Art Museum tells Jozuka. “We don’t know what kind of tools were used to catch these fish, but we’re hoping to find some even older fishing tools.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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