Ancient Fishing Hooks Found at Burial Site Could Rewrite Our Understanding of Pleistocene Gender Roles

Pleistocene-era fishing hooks. Antiquity

The discovery of the world's oldest-known fishing hooks to be placed in a burial mound may end up rewriting the history of gender roles in Pleistocene-era Indonesia. The five hooks were found in a 12,000-year-old grave on Alor Island, and appear to be arranged around the head of a woman.

Sue O'Connor, the archaeologist from the Australian National University who found the hooks, wrote in a new paper that the men of this region and time period were the ones assumed to be doing most of the fishing. This discovery is challenging that assumption. A paper describing the new finding by O'Connor and colleagues from Australia and Indonesia was published in the scientific journal Antiquity.

"If the burial is confirmed as that of a female, the inclusion of fish-hooks as grave goods may indicate that women were responsible for hook-and-line fishing in Alor, as they were in Australia," O'Connor wrote in the paper.

The four circular, rotating hooks. Antiquity

Along with other ceremonial items, the five fish hooks had been placed under and around the chin of the deceased, who is believed to have been an adult female. In addition to being the earliest known hooks associated with burial practices anywhere in the world, the discovery could mean that fishing gear was thought necessary to transition into the afterlife, O'Connor wrote.

"In both life and death, the Pleistocene inhabitants of Alor Island were intrinsically connected to the sea," O'Connor concluded in her paper. "The association of the fish-hooks with a burial denotes the cosmological status of fishing in this island environment."

In other words, fishing was so central to the inhabitants of that era that it took on a spiritual meaning, not just a practical one. O'Connor wrote that this significance was likely because the island lacked other sources of protein, and fishing was thus the inhabitants' main sustenance as well as a part of their everyday life.

The J-shaped hook. Antiquity

As outlets like Smithsonian have reported, fishing hooks from various parts of the world have been dated to more than 20,000 years ago. And O'Connor found similar hooks on East Timor in 2011, Live Science reported. None of those examples, though, were related to burial rites.

Fishing hooks have been associated with funereal practices before. But O'Connor wrote that prior to this discovery the earliest known examples—from near a river in Mesolithic-era Siberia—dated back only to around 9,000 years.

The newly discovered hooks are of two types. Four of the five are circular, rotating hooks constructed from the shell of Tectus niloticus, a sea snail. The fifth, a fragment, is thinner and would have had a straight shaft, giving it a J shape, when intact.

Despite the "uncanny resemblance" between these hooks and others in spanning locations from Japan to Australia to Chile, O'Connor wrote that each fishing community probably developed their hook independently, rather than through any contact with one another—the designs were simply "the most fitting form to suit the ecology."