Maritime Peoples of the Ice Age
“The ocean is a conveyer and not an isolator. It has been mans highway from the days he built the first buoyant ships, long before he tamed the horse, invented wheels, and cut roads through the virgin jungles.” ~Thor Heyerdahl
When we imagine ice age people, maritime lifeways are often overshadowed by more iconic elements of that lost world; bands of hunters pursuing mammoths, or a shaman winding between stalagmites, torch in hand. Many researchers have worked to establish the importance of the seas and rivers to paleolithic hunter-gatherers. I’d like to introduce a few interesting archaeological sites, and make some observations about the advantages of life along a shoreline.
One of the simplest measures of prehistoric seafaring is: could ancient people cross open water? Well, by 110-thousand years ago, there is evidence that islands on the southern Ionian coast of Turkey were inhabited- accessible only by voyaging several kilometers across the aegean. Such voyages would not have been chance events- a handful of individuals clinging to a log for dear life, only to be washed ashore like castaways. That wouldn't produce a long term presence of the kind we see. Instead, we have to imagine purposeful accessing of these islands, using some kind of watercraft. These islands were very likely first peopled by Neanderthals during the middle paleolithic, and later by anatomically modern humans during the upper paleolithic (Ferentinos et al. 2012). We know Neanderthals exploited marine and freshwater resources. One line of evidence is osteological- bony calluses in the inner ears of numerous Neanderthal individuals show evidence of swimmer’s ear, a possible sign of foraging for food in cold, aquatic environments (Trinkaus & Villotte, 2019). Another line of evidence is fish bones found all over Europe at middle paleolithic cave sites, where the fine bones have a better chance of preserving (Guillaud et al., 2021).
As early as 60kya, people had populated the Wallacean archipelago, and crossed the Timor sea to Australia. In an ambitious feat of experimental archaeology, researchers have tried to replicate this journey, to find out the bare minimum level of technology required to reach Australia. This experiment found that reaching Australia required a vessel with steering capability and some kind of simple sail, with a frame capable of withstanding the rigors of deep water voyaging. To construct a vessel with similar capabilities would have required complex forward planning, and people who understood hundreds of specific technologies and skills, pooling them for a single task (Bednarik, 2000). However, whatever vessels they built failed to preserve in the archaeological record, and instead we are left with fragments of bone and stone.
“Paleolithic sophistication can no more be determined from the period’s refuse than modern capability to fly to the moon is indicated by the contents of municipal garbage dumps.” ~Robert Bednarik
At Blombos Cave in South Africa, we know people were fishing close to shore before 50kya, but fish and shellfish represented in that assemblage are shallow-water species and would not have required boats or complex technology for their capture. (Langejans et al., 2012; Henshilwood & Sealy, 1997). On the other hand, by 42kya we know people in East Timor- at a site called Jerimalai Shelter- were capturing fish from the open ocean, and they have identified fishhooks as old as 23 thousand years (O'Connor et al., 2011). By this point people already had an intimate relationship with the sea, and relied on marine resources. Around 17kya, people occupied the site of Ohalo II, in Israel’s Rift Valley. The site is now waterlogged, but archaeologists were able to excavate enough to identify 8 species of fish, belonging to multiple freshwater families. The archaeologists who excavated the site claim that Ohalo II’s inhabititants “used their knowledge of the breeding behavior of different species of fish, for year-round intensive exploitation.” (Zohar et al. 2018: 1)
Archaeologists have observed the advantages of big-game hunting during the expansion of ice age humans around the globe, into sparsely populated, or completely unhinhabited continents. One interesting point is that traditional ecological knowledge is a critical resource, and when modern hunter-gatherers emigrate, they can often tap the traditional ecological knowledge of the local population. For instance, among the Walbiri of central Australia, different groups maintain myths that act as devices for the memorization of a territory, especially the location of water sources (Kelly and Todd, 1988). But, if one is on the front wave of colonization of new continents and regions, there may be no ecological knowledge to turn to. Animals tend to be available year-round and are widely dispersed across a region, while edible plants tend to vary more with local geography.
"A lifeway suitable for this task is one that placed primary reliance on faunal rather than plant resources. It is easier to locate, procure, and process the faunal as opposed to floral resources of an unknown region." (Kelly and Todd, 1988: 234)
That's all well and good, but I think it's also true of coastal maritime resources. If you can gather shellfish, set traps and lines, or cast a net along one coast, you can do it without much change along another coast. Or along many rivers and lakeshores, for that matter. There are two other advantages to maritime lifeways I want to share. First, water makes for easy travel. In the days before the horse, the wheel, or the road, moving things by water was far easier, and the coasts and rivers of the world were the arteries on which we traveled and traded. Second, oceans act as climate regulators. While continental climates are characterized by hot summers and freezing winters, coasts tend to be mild places, that place less seasonal stress upon the people who choose to live there.
Maritime peoples have long been associated with some of the most populous, complex societies hunter-gatherers are capable of producing. For example, the Tlingit of North America's Pacific Northwest lived in large settlements, had hierarchical societies, practiced slavery, and fought wars, all on a foundation of marine resources (Ames, 1994). Large coastal settlements dating to the European mesolithic provide another example. Norje Sunnansund, located in Southern sweden, is dated to as early as 9600 years old, and is among the first sites in Scandinavia that foragers occupied year-round (Boethius, 2018). And when populations become sedentary, they tend to start expanding. Some of the earliest large, sedentary foraging communities of East africa also relied on aquatic resources from the White Nile, at the Al Khiday Mesolithic sites of central Sudan (Maritan et al., 2018). These sites are around 6-7 thousand years old. It is unclear if similar sites, showing complex, sedentary foragers, existed during the paleolithic. Is this evidence of absence, or just absence of evidence?
Sea levels have risen dramatically since the end of the pleistocene, and whole subcontinents have been flooded, or reduced to islands. There was Sunda & Sahul (the former being the combination of southeast Asia and Indonesia, and the latter the combination of Australia and Papua New Guinea). There was Doggerland, occupying much of the English Channel and North Sea. And there was Beringia, between modern day Alaska and Siberia. Along many of the worlds coastlines beyond these subcontinents, enough movement has taken place to submerge ancient maritime settlements.
In one tantalizing clue, amber artifacts, like exquisitely carved animal figures, and ornate pendants are regularly found washed up on Danish beaches. Estimated to be made as early as 15,000 years ago, these artifacts probably come from inundated coastal settlements, and their number seems to hint at a once densely populated part of the Eurpean continent. "Like messages in bottles, washed up on the shore after years spent bobbing on the waves, these amber ornaments carry tidings from the past." (Fischer & Pederson, 2018: 23)
"The extensive lowlands, wetlands, esturaries and shores that vanished below the sea offered unrivalled ecological attractions with regard to the productivity, diversity, and stability of resources for prehistoric fishers, hunters, gatherers, and farmers. The complex richness of these landscapes very probably rendered them of fundamental significance for the biological evolution and cultural development of our species. Moreover, these now lost lands were central to the spread of humans across the world. Classical examples are the migrations of early humankind into Australia and the Americas, which involved the occupation of now submerged, and as yet un-investigated landmasses." ~Anders Fischer
One of the last frontiers of paleolithic archaeology then, must lie beneath the waves.
Ames, K. M. The Northwest Coast: Complex hunter-gatherers, ecology, and social evolution. Annual Review of Anthropology. 1994;23(1):209–29.
Bednarik, R. G. (2000). Crossing the Timor Sea by Middle Palaeolithic Raft. Anthropos, 95(1), 37–47. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40465860
Boethius A. Fishing for ways to thrive: integrating zooarchaeology to understand subsistence strategies and their implications among Early and Middle Mesolithic southern Scandinavian foragers. Lund: Lund University; 2018.
Fischer, A., & Pedersen, L. (2018). Oceans of archaeology. Jutland Archeological Society.
Guillaud, E., Béarez, P., Daujeard, C., Defleur, A. R., Desclaux, E., Roselló-Izquierdo, E., Morales-Muñiz, A., & Moncel, M.-H. (2021). Neanderthal foraging in freshwater ecosystems: A reappraisal of the middle paleolithic archaeological fish record from Continental Western Europe. Quaternary Science Reviews, 252, 106731. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2020.106731
Henshilwood, C., & Sealy, J. (1997). Bone artefacts from the Middle Stone Age at Blombos Cave, Southern Cape, South Africa. Current Anthropology, 38(5), 890–895. https://doi.org/10.1086/204678
Langejans, G. H. J., van Niekerk, K. L., Dusseldorp, G. L., & Thackeray, J. F. (2012). Middle stone age shellfish exploitation: Potential indications for mass collecting and resource intensification at Blombos Cave and Klasies River, South Africa. Quaternary International, 270, 80–94. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2011.09.003
Maritan, L., Iacumin, P., Zerboni, A., Venturelli, G., Dal Sasso, G., Linseele, V., Talamo, S., Salvatori, S., & Usai, D. (2018). Fish and salt: The successful recipe of White Nile mesolithic hunter-gatherer-fishers. Journal of Archaeological Science, 92, 48–62. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2018.02.008
Norman, K., Inglis, J., Clarkson, C., Faith, J. T., Shulmeister, J., & Harris, D. (2018). An early colonization pathway into northwest Australia 70-60,000 years ago. Quaternary Science Reviews, 180, 229–239. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2017.11.023
O’Connor, S., Ono, R., & Clarkson, C. (2011). Pelagic fishing at 42,000 years before the present and the maritime skills of modern humans. Science, 334(6059), 1117–1121. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1207703
Trinkaus, E., Samsel, M., & Villotte, S. (2019). External auditory exostoses among Western Eurasian late middle and late pleistocene humans. PLOS ONE, 14(8). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0220464
Zohar, I., Dayan, T., Goren, M., Nadel, D., & Hershkovitz, I. (2018). Opportunism or aquatic specialization? evidence of freshwater fish exploitation at Ohalo II- a waterlogged Upper Paleolithic site. PLOS ONE, 13(6). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0198747
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