Fly Fishing Invented 13,000 Years Ago on the Banks of the Jordan River

The people’s manufacture of hooks from animal bones or ivory, for fly fishing or otherwise, was extraordinary. These were the last hunter-gatherers in Israel

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
The site of some of the finds.
The site of some of the finds. Credit: Prof. Gonen Sharon / Tel-Hai College
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Starting at least 20,000 years ago, prehistoric people were fishing on the shores of paleo-Lake Hula into which the Jordan River spilled. They didn’t live there, it seems. Water levels were changing and signs of prehistoric occupation have not been found.

But they definitely fished there, going by evidence including fishhooks, fishing net sinkers made of limestone, and lots and lots of fish bones, some bearing the char of prehistoric barbecue banquets.

At first the prehistoric fisherfolk seem to have confined themselves to net fishing and serendipity. But around 15,000 years ago, they began using fishhooks.

And from about 13,000 years ago, they were engaging in advanced fly fishing, says the international team exploring the site, which is called Jordan River Dureijat. The report by Prof. Gonen Sharon of Tel-Hai College in the Galilee and his colleagues appears in the journal PLOS One.

Boar tusks and barbs

The fly fishers at Dureijat were part of the Natufian culture, the people in prehistoric Israel who made the transition from a life of hunting, fishing and gathering to agriculture (augmented by hunting, fishing and gathering, to this day, if you count the supermarket). In fact, fishing may have been crucial to their survival during their process of settling down.

The Natufians were not pioneers of the fishhook technique; it seems hooks were in use over 42,000 years ago, in East Timor, and if we found that, there were probably earlier ones. But at Jordan River Dureijat, this was an innovation. And the people’s manufacture of hooks, for fly fishing or otherwise, was extraordinary.

Some of the Natufians' fishhooks. Credit: Prof. Gonen Sharon / Tel-Hai College

For the non-cognoscenti among us, it turns out that fly fishing is when you fish with a hook but no bait. So how do you induce the fish to bite? By attaching fake bait, throwing the hook into the water and strolling along the lakeshore, riverbank or wherever.

The ersatz insect or fake worm skitters along the surface of the water and looks alive. These are easy enough to make; just use a clump of hair or fur, a bit of plant, whatever.

So when the fish bites, it gets hooked, which brings us to the next point. Led by Sharon, the researchers have been analyzing 19 ancient hooks and fishing techniques, both hot topics to this day among people who fish. And the team has made some startling discoveries.

For one thing, all the fishhooks were fashioned from animal bones – with one exception. One hook was made of ivory, and no, Israel didn’t have elephants anymore when these people were plying the banks of the Jordan for marine meals. The hook was probably made out of boar tusk, Sharon suggests – and less likely but not impossible: a hippo tooth.

Also, the Natufians fishing at Dureijat fashioned a range of exquisite hooks from the bones, some of which had barbs, and they’re the only barbed hooks known from this early time, Sharon says.

Just as surprising is how fine the manufacturing was. Three-dimensional scans of the 19 fishhooks are available online. (“This gives people access, which is good for collaboration, and if something happens we have the models,” Sharon observes.)

“They had inner barbs, outer barbs, some hooks without barbs – they knew exactly what type of hook you need for what type and size of fish,” Sharon says. “They had full knowledge of the behavior of the fish and how they search for food. Some trout go for that.”

Sinkers, too.Credit: Prof. Gonen Sharon / Tel-Hai College

Asked what fish are not caught by fly fishing, he notes that catfish are bottom feeders and won’t jump at a fly.

So what type and size of fish did these fisherfolk acquire? The researchers are still working on identifying specific species but so far can say that the people ate of the carp and the tilapia, the catfish and the trout.

And some of the catch was made up of tiny little things a centimeter or two long for which the fisherfolk fashioned tiny little hooks. And some were absolute monsters such as carp more than 2 meters long. These couldn’t be caught using hooks, Sharon observes – nets were needed.

We know about the monster carp from teeth, not bones, and extrapolation from the teeth. As for the tiny fishhooks, some are so small that Sharon professes shock that prehistoric people using prehistoric stone and bone tools could have made them at all. But we can say that they weren’t discriminate in their fish choice.

Fishing at Hula 20,000 to 10,000 years agoCredit: YouTube

Yes, there is a trace of fishing line

Microscopic analysis of the hooks indicates use of highly advanced drilling and stone tools to scrape and abrade the hooks – and at high magnification, the scientists found, a trace of the fishing line.

Fishing line today is thin and strong, and so it was then too, albeit made of plant material, not sinew or synthetics.

But unlike today, the Natufians didn’t just tie the hook to the fishing line. They did do that; they had highly sophisticated knotting techniques, Sharon says. But after going to all that effort to make the hooks, they weren’t about to lose them casually.

What a complete hook would have looked like: There's proof that the Natufians made some mighty fine twine. Credit: Prof. Gonen Sharon / Tel-Hai College

“One of the biggest problems in fishing is that one loses the hook in the water,” he says. So they glued the fiber to the hooks.

Still on the hooks – each was a treasure, featuring weird and wonderful ways to tie on that fishing line, which must have been just as much of a prehistoric nightmare to make.

“Each and every hook has different features that show us how they tied the twine on,” Sharon says. “Some have a groove, some have prominences proud of the fishhook, some have more than one prominence.”

The stone net weights were also grooved. The size of the grooves show that the Natufians were making mighty fine twine, the authors explain. And it had to be strong because even minnows fight like lions when hooked.

Making twine in the Natufian period is not surprising per se; Neanderthals were making twine, it turns out (tens of thousands of years earlier, in France). But the quality of the Natufian string was amazing.

“Each and every hook has different features that show us how they tied the twine on,” says Prof. Gonen Sharon of Tel-Hai College.Credit: Prof. Gonen Sharon / Tel-Hai College

What are we to learn from all this? Possibly, the importance of fish to the economy of these Natufians, the last hunter-gatherers in Israel.

They were the first people to settle down, and some even built stone houses, Sharon says. “When transitioning from a nomadic life to sedentarism, you have a lot of challenges – social challenges, sewage …. But maybe the real challenge is that you exhaust all the resources around you,” he adds.

“When hunter-gatherers exhausted the resources, they could move on, but the Natufians who began to settle down couldn’t do that. Other places also had other people already, and how long would it be before they finished the local animals, trees and plants? Fish on the other hand, and other aquatic resources, never end.”

Actually in this day and age we are discovering that marine resources are finite; humanity is driving at least some fish – such as sharks, giant carp and catfish – to extinction. The Natufians on the other hand probably wouldn’t have troubled to catch more than they could eat.

And maybe their exploitation of aquatic resources on the banks of the River Jordan as it spilled into paleo-Lake Hula was key to their successful adaptation to settlement, ultimately leading to the agricultural revolution of the Neolithic.

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