updated 8/18/2012 10:18:00 AM ET 2012-08-18T14:18:00

This is an excerpt from “Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks,” by Juliet Eilperin. As national environment reporter for The Washington Post, Eilperin's assignments have taken her across the Arctic tundra and into Tennessee caves in search of rare insects, but she's happiest underwater. In "Demon Fish," she provides a global look at the often surprising and inexplicable ways people and cultures relate to, and engage with, the ocean’s top predator. Get more information on her book and reporting here.

In our current era, when sharks are viewed as “the other,” it’s important to recognize that during earlier periods of human civilization, they were seen as more intimately connected to us. While some communities simply viewed them as a part of the natural world to be observed, several coastal societies saw them as either playing a critical role in their creation or serving as ongoing arbiters of human activities and disputes. One of the remarkable aspects of shark calling in Papua New Guinea is that it has preserved this sort of worldview to this day, where other traditions have collapsed. But in the overall context of human history, Karasimbe and his cohorts are not unique.

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While most ancient thinkers provided anthropocentric accounts of sharks, Greeks such as Aristotle also studied the animals, and their close relations, for themselves. Aristotle dubbed them, collectively, selache, a name that still defines these animals more than two thousand years later. In one of his most vivid accounts of shark behavior, Aristotle described their mating rites: the cartilaginous fishes in copulation “hang together after the fashion of dogs, . . . the long-tailed ones mounting the others, unless the latter have a thick tail preventing this, when they come together belly to belly.”

The Islamic world offered its seminal account of sharks in 1270, when the Iraqi judge Zakariya Qazwini compiled an illustrated compendium titled "The Wonders of Creation and the Oddities of Existence." The book, which was popular reading for hundreds of years, described how some residents lived in fear of the freshwater sharks that swam in the Tigris River. Matthew McDavitt, who practices law for a living in Charlottesville, Virginia, but spends much of his free time documenting how ancient cultures viewed sharks and other elasmobranchs, commissioned a translation of the book’s folio 71v, its section on the Persian Sea:

"This is a great evil in the sea. It is like the crocodiles in the Nile River. Also it comes at a specific time mainly into the Tigris River. Some (other fish that ascend the Tigris River) are well-known: Al-Arabian, Al-Dahi, Al-Adaq, Al-Barak, and Al-Kubrij, all different species of fish. Each type comes at certain times, known to the people of Basra. One of them is known as Al-Tin (literally, “the dragon”; also known as Tinin). It is worse than Al-Kusaj (shark). It has teeth like spearheads. It is as long as a palm-tree. Its eyes are like fires of blood. It has an ugly shape; all other species run away from it."

While these early scientific accounts by Greeks, Romans, and Iraqis detail the real-world interactions between sharks and other species, many ancient island and coastal cultures elsewhere focused on sharks’ more mythical aspects. They constructed elaborate and abstract belief systems in which the animals represented different core values: sharks and rays symbolized law and justice to tribes and clans in Australia, Papua New Guinea, and central Africa, while they embodied aquatic fertility and warfare in the Yucatán. These stories portrayed sharks with greater complexity and helped explain the world in which these people lived. While aboriginal Australians developed very different beliefs about sharks compared with the Mayans, native Hawaiians, and men and women living on the Niger Delta, all of these societies saw their lives as intimately connected to sharks and their close relatives rays.

From the book DEMON FISH by Juliet Eilperin
©2011 Juliet Eilperin
Reprinted with the permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
Buy "Demon Fish" at Indiebound

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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