Flyfishing for carp holds about as much appeal for me as getting a face tattoo. But what if my ancestors—or yours—were doing just that at the dawn of civilization? University of Connecticut anthropology professor Natalie Munro hypothesizes that this may indeed have been the case among the prehistoric people who regularly visited an ancient lake in what is today northern Israel.
In 2014, an international team of scientists, including Munro, started to excavate an archaeological site on the Jordan River. It contained remarkably well-preserved items used by ancient anglers: hooks from animal bone, sinkers made of stone, even strands of animal hair used in making line. The site, called Jordan River Dureijat (JRD), soon revealed “the largest collection of fishing technology from the Epipaleolithic and Paleolithic periods,” according to the team’s groundbreaking 2021 study, published in the science journal, PLOS ONE.
They found nineteen fish hooks used between 12,000 and 15,000 years ago–about the time humans transitioned from roving bands of hunter-gatherers to settled farming communities. Munro focuses on this period. “I’m interested in the beginning of agriculture,” she told me.
It’s rare to find such artifacts, but the hooks, as well as six grooved stones (for sinkers), were preserved in layers of mud. “They were lost during fishing,” says Munro.
Before this, humans used traps, nets, and harpoons to catch fish. The incorporation of hook-and-line represents a major technological–and evolutionary–step. “The study of the fish hooks provides the first evidence that several landmark innovations in fishing technology were already in use at this early date,” reads the study. “These include barbs, a variety of line-attachment techniques including knobs, grooves and adhesives, and some of the earliest evidence for artificial lures.”
The researchers found a bounty of clam shells they believe prehistoric anglers might have used to make lures: “Artificial baits may have included shell flutters—flat pieces of shiny mother-of-pearl that wiggle in the water to attract fish,” the study notes. “Today, the use of light lures requires a casting technique known as fly fishing. Given the small dimensions of the hooks likely to have been equipped with artificial lures at JRD, the possibility that a similar angling method was already in use during the Natufian should not be ruled out.”
No ancient rods were found, but Munro believes the rods used could have been similar to tenkara rods. “I imagine they were using something like that,” she says.
A zooarchaeologist, Munro studies animal remains. Besides finding hooks made of bone, the team also uncovered remains from birds, snakes, deer, and hares (among other prey) as well as teeth and vertebrae from fish. And one type of fish dominate the findings. “Cyprinids [carp] are by far the most common family in all layers,” the authors write in the study.
So, it’s quite possible that thousands of years ago, before civilization even existed, humans may have been flyfishing for carp. (And Barry Reynolds thought he was ahead of his time!) But fear not fellow purists: “One of the fish,” Munro says, “they believe is a trout.”