Image: Fish hooks
Sue O'Connor
Photos show both sides of a fish hook that was apparently used to pull in tuna, sharks and barracuda 42,000 years ago. The scale indicates centimeters.
By
updated 11/25/2011 6:54:32 PM ET 2011-11-25T23:54:32

Humans were expert deep-sea fishermen as far back as 42,000 years ago, hauling in tuna, sharks and barracudas, new research suggests.

Fish appeared in the human diet about 1.9 million years ago. Early catchers waded into freshwater lakes and streams without the need for boats or complex tools. It wasn't until later that humans decided to ply the ocean in search of fish.

The latest evidence comes from an excavation on the southeast Asian island of East Timor where remains of tuna and other deep-water fish were uncovered inside a cave. Using dating techniques, a team led by archaeologist Sue O'Connor of Australian National University determined the age to be 42,000 years old — making it the earliest evidence for ocean fishing.

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The findings were reported in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

Since catching tuna and marine fish requires tools and advance planning, this meant people must have developed the mental and technological know-how to exploit the sea.

"It increases our insight into the developing abilities of early modern people," Eric Delson, an anthropologist at Lehman College of the City University of New York who had no role in the research, said in an email.

Early anglers probably fashioned boats by tying logs together and used nets and sharpened pieces of wood or shells as hooks, said Kathlyn Stewart, a research scientist at the Canadian Museum of Nature, who was not part of the study.

"These people were smart," she said. They knew "there were fish out there."

It's unclear how far the early mariners ventured. Once the bounty was caught, they likely ate it raw or went back to camp to cook it, Stewart said.

Along with the fish remains, researchers also unearthed fragments of fish hooks made out of bone from the same East Timor site including one that dated to between 16,000 and 23,000 years ago.

"The hooks were definitely used for ocean fishing but we can't be sure which species," O'Connor said in an email.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: Seven real-life archaeological mysteries

  • Alexandre Meneghini  /  AP file

    Hollywood's favorite archaeologist has chased around Egypt, India, the Middle East ... and the Amazon as well. "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is loosely inspired by a supposed Mesoamerican legend that 13 widely dispersed crystal skulls will yield unprecedented powers when united.

    In real life, several purported crystal skulls are housed in museums around the world, though archaeologists doubt their ancient provenance and mystical powers. Instead, these skulls are primarily seen as fakes sold by 19th-century antiquities dealers to feed a market hungry for pre-Hispanic relics. Nevertheless, the archaeological mystery of the crystal skulls lives on. Skull hunters still search for them, and the Maya believe they hold special powers. In this picture, a priest hoists a skull in a ceremony at the Palenque ruins in Mexico.

    Click the "Next" arrow above to learn about six more archaeological mysteries.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Where is the grave of Genghis Khan?

    Japan-Mongol Joint Research Team via AP

    Where is Genghis Khan buried? Nobody knows. The bloody Mongol warrior became famous as the ruler of an empire that eventually stretched from China to Hungary, but he asked to be buried in an unmarked grave. According to legend, anyone who witnessed the burial party en route to the funeral in 1227 was killed, and then the soldiers and servants who attended the funeral were massacred. Thus, the grave site has been one of archaeology's enduring mysteries. But scientists may be closing in on the location at last. In 2004, they unearthed the site of Genghis Khan's 13th-century palace, which is pictured here. Ancient texts suggest the grave itself could be nearby.

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    Hundreds of monolithic statues called Moai, including the ones in this picture, ring remote Easter Island in the South Pacific. They face inland from the shore, presumably keeping watch over ancestral lands. Scientists unraveling the mystery of how the Polynesian settlers moved the statues are also piecing together the tale of the settlers' demise. According to a leading theory, giant palms were hacked down to roll the statues into place beginning in about 1200. As the population swelled, more chiefs requested statues, and more trees were felled. Eventually the island was denuded. Easter Island's environment — and society — collapsed. Other researchers pin the blame on Europeans, disease and rats.

  • Was Stonehenge a place of healing?

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    Every year at the summer solstice, thousands of people witness the season's first sunrise at Stonehenge, about 90 miles west of London in the English countryside. Was the monument erected beginning around 3000 B.C. for the secular purpose of marking time? Perhaps, some scholars say. Another prominent theory suggests it was a place of worship. The most recent idea holds that the monument was erected as center of healing. Archaeologists dug at the site for the first time in nearly half a century to get a precise date for Stonehenge's bluestones, which were thought to have healing powers. A close match with the time frame during which archaeologists believe the stones were taken from the Perseli Mountains, 153 miles away, could help confirm the theory.

  • Why were the Nazca Lines etched?

    David Jackson / NBC News file

    Hundreds of lines and figures etched into the coastal desert of southern Peru have baffled archaeologists for decades. The Nazca people made the playing-field sized etchings between 200 B.C. and A.D. 700 by removing rust-colored pebbles to reveal the lighter soils beneath. Some are simple shapes reminiscent of geometry class. Others are recognizable animals, such as the hummingbird in this image. But what do they mean? Theories proposed over the years have ranged from religious and astronomical purposes to guideposts of sorts for finding water.

  • What is China's terracotta army guarding?

    Image: Mars Polar Lander
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    In 1974, archaeologists found an army of thousands of terracotta statues standing guard outside the tomb of Qin Shi Huang Di, the ruler who unified China in 221 B.C. The find ranks as one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. Each of the soldiers has a unique facial expression, and the troops are aligned according to rank in trenchlike corridors, accompanied by horses and chariots.

    As impressive as the army may be, scientists suspect that even greater treasure lies within Qin's unexcavated tomb. An account by an ancient court historian suggests that the tomb is full of miniature palaces, rivers of mercury and precious stones to represent the moon and stars. Remote sensing and nearby excavations have lent some credence to the writings.

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    The Great Pyramid of Giza near Cairo, one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World, retains its world-famous status in a 21st-century list of seven wonders. Its mystique partly rests in just how the 479-foot-tall burial structure was built. Most Egyptologists believe large stones were moved from a quarry and lifted into place, but how? Teams of workers could have dragged the 2.5-ton stones with brute force, or perhaps they rolled them on logs. However they did it, recent research suggests the workers were skilled, not untrained slaves.

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