Sydney - Australian archaeologists have uncovered evidence that prehistoric humans living 42,000 years ago mastered the art of deep-sea fishing, they revealed.
They also found the world's earliest recorded fish hook, made of shell and dating from between 23,000 and 16,000 years ago, during excavations at the Jerimalai cave site in East Timor.
The findings, published in the latest issue of the journal Science, stem from work done by Professor Sue O'Connor from the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.
She said it demonstrated prehistoric man had high-level maritime skills, and by implication the technology needed to make the ocean crossings to reach Australia.
“The site that we studied featured more than 38,000 fish bones from 2,843 individual fish dating back 42,000 years,” O'Connor said, with many of the fish deep-sea species.
“What the site in East Timor has shown us is that early modern humans in island Southeast Asia had amazingly advanced maritime skills.
“They were expert at catching the types of fish that would be challenging even today - fish like tuna. It's a very exciting find.”
A fish hook was also found at the site, but O'Connor said was not likely to have been used for deep-sea fishing.
“This is, we believe, the earliest known example of a fish hook and shows that our ancestors were skilled crafts people as well as fishers,” she said.
“The hooks don't seem suitable for pelagic fishing, but it is possible that other types of hooks were being made at the same time.”
What is still unknown is exactly how these ancient people were able to catch fast-moving deep-ocean fish. Tuna can be caught using nets or by trolling hooks on long lines through the water, said O'Connor.
“Simple fish aggregating devices such as tethered logs can also be used to attract them. So they may have been caught using hooks or nets,” she said.
“Either way it seems certain that these people were using quite sophisticated technology and watercraft to fish offshore.”
She added that the finds may shed light on how Australia's first inhabitants arrived on the continent, with the implication that seaworthy boats would have been used to fish in the deep ocean.
“We have known for a long time that Australia's ancient ancestors must have been able to travel hundreds of kilometres by sea because they reached Australia by at least 50,000 years ago,” said O'Connor.
“When we look at the watercraft that indigenous Australians used at the time of European contact, however, they are all very simple, like rafts and canoes.
“So how people got here at such an early date has always been puzzling. These new finds from Jerimalai cave go a long way to solving the puzzle.”