Monday, May 12, 2008

Diffusion of Ancient Sea Fishing Culture

The recent discovery of shell fish hooks in the Persian Gulf offers an opportunity to reexamine the ancient diffusion of sea fishing culture and general maritime culture and the possible Nusantao linkages.

Single-piece, curved shell fish hooks have a strong circum-Pacific distribution in the early Holocene period but also extend all the way to the Persian Gulf and northeastern Africa toward the West.

Distribution of Shell Fish Hooks beginning in Early Holocene

Click on image for full-size map

The sites shown in the map above are generally associated with shell mound cultures. In some of these areas the single-piece, curved shell fish hook is preceded by a straight, multi-piece hook made of non-shell material.

Even after exposure to civilization, the Nusantao Maritime Trade and Communication Network may have used the extreme maritime mode of living as exemplified by the shell mound culture for exploration voyages. Sea fishing/hunting and shellfish collection would allow the Nusantao explorers/merchants to quickly adapt to new, unknown territories without carrying a lot of supplies.

Shell Fishhooks, Saint Nicholas Island, CaliforniaJohn Weinstein, © The Field Museum
Shell fish hooks, South Coastal Californians (3000 BC-AD 900), California

The early shell fish hooks from Timor were made from Trochus niloticus, and the same species was used for fish hooks at the Vanuatu and Tikopia sites. Latter peoples of the Pacific favored pearl shell to make fish hooks, and some early theorists had even suggested that the Pacific was colonized by peoples looking for new pearl fishing grounds. The earliest shell hooks predated the Austronesian expansion, but Proto-Austronesians appear to have adopted this item quickly as shown by the PAN reconstruction *kawil "fish hook." The Austronesian speakers generally used the single-piece, curved shell fish hook, either the angling or the trolling variety.

Proto-Oceanic also has another reconstruction for "fish hook" in the form of *kima "shell fish hook, clamshell" that appears to be related to a common word in Papuan languages kimai and its cognates that also mean "shell fish hook, clamshell." Possibly *kima and kimai are remnants of Pre-Austronesian words for these items.

Robert Blust has suggested a diverse set of roots -- kug, kuk, kuy, kul, kel, ku(q), luk, luy, and tuk -- all having the meaning 'to bend, curve.' Some of these roots appear similar to words constructed for Nostratic and other long-range families, but Torsten Pedersen has suggested that these forms may instead have been diffused at an early date by a 'waterfront' people.

A number of words like bend, hook, curve, etc. at least appear related to Proto-Austric *kun[k,q], 'bend', if not the Proto-Austronesian roots. And there are a few words that might relate direction to Proto-Austronesian *kawil such as ga:la "fish hook" and its cognates from the Dravidian languages, gaLa "fish hook" from Pali and Prakrit, and possibly kullab "hook, fish hook," Arabic.

S. Starostin has suggested a term for "fish trap, net" as found in his hopelessly large language family called "Borean" in which he combines an expanded Austric grouping together with Sino-Caucasian. Here again it's possible that an early long-range diffusion by a maritime culture may explain this term rather than genetic language inheritance. Here are some examples of the possible related forms:

PMP *saruk "type of fishing net"
Proto-Austric *[ʒ]al "fishing net or basket"
UAN *zalah or *d'ala' "fishing net"
Proto-Sino-Tibetan *[ʒ́h]ŏn (˜-ɫ) "fish trap or basket"

Following is a list of Proto-Austronesian (PAN) and Proto-Malayo-Polynesian (PMP) fishing terminologies giving a good idea of the importance of sea fishing as an early source of sustenance in this region.

Fishing TermsPANPMP
bait, trolling lure *paen *paen
fish basket trap *bubu *bubu
fish corral
fish drive
fishhook *kawil *kawil
fishing dip net
fishing net
fishing line
fishing net float
fishing pole
fish poison
seine net
torch, torch fishing

Diffusion of Fish Poisons

One of the most interesting areas of research is the widespread use of fish poisons to stupefy and then catch fish, and its relevance to early migration and the development of early agriculture.

For sea fishing, the poisons are usually cast into inter-tidal pools during low tide to stun fish, which are then easily scooped up by hand, net, etc.

Proto-Austronesian *tuba "fish poison, to poison fish" usually refers to either the Derris or Tephrosia species although many other plants are also used. Some species like Barringtonia, which has a waterborne seed, may have been diffused mainly by sea currents. However, other plants like Derris uliginosa, Derris elliptica, Mundulea suberosa, Anamirta cocculus and a number of Tephrosia species do not transfer well over water and are often found in areas where their wild progenitors are lacking or rare, suggesting human agency.

"...Derris uliginosa, is used as a fish poison from the Zambezi River in Africa, through India and Southeast Asia to the Philippines, Java, Australia, Fiji, and the Marquesas. This distribution is much more indicative of a possible human role in its dissemination because Derris, when used as a fish poison, is commonly a cultivated plant and may have been spread over some of its broad range by human action. A third fish poison, Mundulea suberosa, "probably as a result of age- long cultivation" (Howes 1930:133) is used throughout tropical Africa as well as in Madagascar, India, and Ceylon. Or again, Anamirta cocculus is reported from Brittany to the Philippines, including Palestine, Arabia, Persia, India, Malaya, and Java. Another widely distributed plant used in the same way is Derris elliptica, reported from India, Malaya, Indonesia, Borneo, Philippines, the Caroline Islands, and New Guinea."

(Quigley 1956:510)
A strong argument can be made for the distribution of these plants along the spice trade routes in the Old World and by the Lapita expansion in the Pacific.

Tephrosia purpurea (Tephrosia piscatoria) appears to have a pantropical range as a fish poison and often is cultivated without wild parents throughout much of its range. The plant is native to tropical Asia.

Many of the Tephrosia species used for fish poisoning are nearly identical and can often be distinguished only by experts. The same can be said for the Derris and Lonchocarpus species suggesting that these plants may have been mistaken by migrants for the same plants used as fish poisons in former habitats. Another possibility is that early voyagers sought out similar looking plants with the idea that they possessed similar properties.

Quigley lists a number of other fish poisons with spotty pantropical distributions:

Pantropical plants of other genera which are recorded as piscicides in at least part of their range are Cissampelos pareira L. (used in the Philippine Islands and the West Indies according to Quisumbing 1947:146 and Killip and Smith 1935:14); Sapindus saponaria L. (Killip and Smith 1935:14); and Entada phaseoloides L. (used in the Philippines, India, and South Africa, according to Quisumbing 1947; Chopra 1941; and Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk 1932).

(Quigley 1956:520)

Many of the fish poison plants are wasteland weeds and easily cultivated making them ideal for semi-nomadic seafarers to carry along with them. The fish poisoning method does not require as much local knowledge of fish habits and fish species for success as do most other types of sea fishing.


Proto-Malayo-Polynesian naturally has many reconstructed terms for the seascape. Here is a partial list of PMP and PAN terms:

*lahud ‘downriver, towards the sea’
*qarus 'current'
*qalun ‘long rolling wave, swell, billow’
*budaq 'foam, froth'
*busa 'foam'
*ruab 'high tide'
*lajay 'coral'
*buŋa ni batu ‘coral sponge’
*sakaRu ‘reef, shoal’
*namaw ‘sheltered water: deep place in a river; cove, harbour, lagoon'
*l(i,u)mut 'seaweed'
*ma-qaCi 'ebb, low tide' (PAN)
*sawaq 'channel, passage'
*qaNud 'drifting on current'
*Nabek ‘breakers, surf, waves’ (PAN)

Remember that the early seafarer did not have the same technologies as those in medieval times or during the Age of Exploration. The vessels were generally smaller with less storage space and lacking waterproof compartments. The sails and materials of those early boats generally necessitated going along with the wind and currents as much as possible and not fighting against these elements. The ability to live as much as possible off the sea itself would have been of great advantage to early explorers and sea traders.

We find that even into the late period that the large kingdoms and empires of Southeast Asia still maintained communities that lived on the water. The king of Sanfotsi exempted these people from taxes, possibly a recognition of their importance to the ancient maritime culture of the region.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Quigley, Carroll. "Aboriginal Fish Poisons and the Diffusion Problem," American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 58, No. 3, (Jun., 1956), 508-525.

Landberg, Leif C. W. "Tuna Tagging and the Extra-Oceanic Distribution of Curved, Single-Piece Shell Fishhooks in the Pacific," American Antiquity, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Apr., 1966), 485-493.

O’Connor, S. "Unpacking the Island Southeast Asian Neolithic Cultural Package, and Finding Local Complexity," IN: Bacus, Elisabeth A, Ian C. Glover, Vincent C. Piggot. Uncovering Southeast Asia's Past, NUS Press, Singapore, 2006.

Pawley, Andrew. "The origins of early Lapita culture: The testimony of historical linguistics,", 2007.

Phillipson, David W. African Archaeology, Cambridge University Press, 2005, 181-2.

Ross, Malcolm D.; Andrew Pawley; Meredith Osmond, eds. The lexicon of Proto-Oceanic: the culture and environment of ancestral Oceanic society. Canberra: Australian National University E Press, 2007.

White , Nancy. South American Archaeology: Archaic/Preceramic (6000-2000 B.C.): Emergence of sedentism, early ceramics,, 2005.