Researchers have uncovered what they believe to be the oldest fish hooks ever discovered, dating to roughly 23,000 years old. The findings, published in PNAS, show how maritime technology was much more advanced and widespread at this period of time, and gives an insight into how early humans were surviving in environments researchers traditionally thought were uninhabitable.
Found in a cave on the Japanese island of Okinawa, which is located about half way between Taiwan and Japan, the hooks add to the evidence that humans have been visiting the island for the past 50,000 years, but crucially they also hint at something else. It has long been assumed that there was not enough resources on the tiny area of land to support ancient humans for a prolonged period of time, but the discovery of fishing hooks seems to suggest otherwise, and that people were able to exploit a much larger range of resources.
We know that remarkably by around 47,000 years ago, as humans spread throughout Southeast Asia, they must have developed some form of advanced maritime technology in order for people to have hopped from island to island. Yet evidence of this technology, from the ships used to sail on the water, to tools used to exploit it, are few and far between. This is why the discovery of these early fish hooks, which just beat the previously known oldest hooks by around 5,000 years, are of such incredible importance.
Over a period of three years, researchers have been excavating the Sakitari Cave found on Okinawa, in which they have found evidence that the humans who landed there feasted upon a wide range of food, from eels to frogs, to small mammals. But among all the charred bones littering the floor, they also found human remains, along with objects they crafted such as beads, possibly a grindstone, and the fish hooks in question. They found two fully made hooks crafted from seashells, and what they believe is the beginning of another two that were never finished, that they could date to 23,000 years ago using the charcoal in the same layer fo the dig.
The discoveries from the cave back up claims that people at the time were a lot more advanced with their maritime technology than evidence tends to suggest, but it also provides confirmation that these early humans were exploiting seasonal foodstuffs. Also found in the cave were the remains of crabs, and particularly large ones at that, which suggests that they were caught when the crustaceans migrate down the rivers on the island during the mating season and the crabs are at their biggest. This simply adds the weight that these people knew their environment intimately, and clearly had the tools to exploit it efficiently.