Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilisation
Brian Fagan
Yale University Press
346pp, 20 black-and-white illustrations and 16 maps
Hardback, £25


If Barry Cunliffe believes archaeologists underestimated our prehistoric ancestors' ability to engage with the sea, they have also, according to Brian Fagan, only in recent years turned their attention to the sea's bounty and the oldest means of subsistence.

Confessing that he is no fisherman himself, the Emeritus Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of Fish on Friday and The Great Warming, presents an extensive view of fishing communities in all corners of the earth from the earliest peoples who survived on fish, shellfish and molluscs. Catfish was central to the diet in Tanzania 1.75 million years ago, while arrivals in the Baltic after the last Ice Age relied on the year-round availability of molluscs, and they built homes on mounds of shells. Settlements needed reliable sources of food, which Atlantic cod and Asian carp could provide. Even if it was on a cyclical basis, as in the salmon runs of America's northwest, harvests could be more reliable than managed crops.

Sumerians, Chinese, Egyptians and Greeks all practised fish farming, while garum (fish paste) was the 'the mustard and ketchup' of the Roman world since at least the 5th century BC. It was a huge industry throughout the empire, and among the largest salted fish and garum factories was one at Troia on the Sado estuary just south of Lisbon, which stretched for three kilometres. Made from small fish, mackerel, sardines, tuna intestines and other fish detritus, it fermented and liquified in the heat, so it packed quite a pungent punch.

It was 'fish-eater' communities of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, Fagan says, that allowed trade to flourish in the region, as sailors learned to rely on places where they could stop for provisions as they headed into less well-known waters.

By looking at fishing communities around the world, Fagan shows how they led to the development of cities and empires. While agriculture promoted stability, fishing needed travel, trade and mobility, and the hunt for fishing grounds helped to develop vessels, while salting and curing fish was an ideal and necessary provision for the voyages.

This book claims to present the first history of humans and fishing as a sustainable food, and the fact that interest is being shown in the subject is in part due to new developing technologies. Not only can fish bone samples now reveal the age of a fish and the season it was caught, but human bone samples can show how much of a diet came from maritime rather than terrestrial food.

This is the story of the world's great aquatic larder, of the full bounty of the sea that Man expected to last forever. But, of course, the bounty is in danger of running out, and in the last chapter Fagan, who has written many books on archaeology and climate change, looks at the sustainability of our last major source from the wild.
Roger Williams

 

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