Fish and Shellfish

Antiquity of Fish

Of the animals that humans eat, fish are among the oldest. The waters they inhabit formed on Earth perhaps 4 billion years ago.1 Life originated during the next 700 million years in the ocean, the first creatures being microbes.2 The first vertebrates, fish arose roughly 520 million years ago during the Cambrian Period (540-485 million years ago).5 The ocean harbored early species, which thereafter colonized freshwater lakes and rivers. These pioneers resembled w'orms more than fish, though scales and fins were early adaptations to aquatic environments. During the Devonian Period (405-345 million years ago), known as the age of fishes, species began to diversify.4 Their numbers increased during the Jurassic (180-135 million years ago) and Cretaceous (135-165 million years ago) Periods and today constitute over 31,000 species.5

Water covers roughly two-thirds of Earth, most of the unpolluted portions being suitable for fish.6 Although scientists once thought the deepest ocean inhospitable, telegraph cables’ deposition and retraction on the ocean floor in the nineteenth century revealed fish at the bottom. Even the deepest part—in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench—which plummets to 11,030 meters (12,062.6 yards or 36,187.7 feet), has fish.7 Most occupy continental shelves, the portions of continents covered by ocean. They are comparatively shallow at under 200 meters (218.7 yards or 656.2 feet). Beyond them, depths plunge.

Apart from the ocean, fish inhabit lakes and rivers. For example, Lake Erie has about half the fish despite holding just 2 percent of their waters.8 Dubbed Florida’s inland sea, Lake Okeechobee bills itself “the crappie capital of the world” and “the best panfish lake in the world.”9 Tanzania’s Lake Malawi has chambo (Oreochromis species), sardine (Engraulicypris sardella), and kampango catfish (Bagrus meridionalis). Siberia’s Lake Baikal supports sculpins (species in the superfamily Cottoidea), golomyankas (Comephorus baicalensis and Comephorus dyboxvskii), omul (Coregonus migratorius), Baikal whitefish (Coregonus baicalensis), w'hite grayling (Thymallus brevipinnis),

Lake Okeechobee

FIGURE 5.1 Lake Okeechobee. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, black grayling (Thymallus baicalensis), and sturgeon (Acipenser baerii baicalensis). Nile perch (bates niloticus), mentioned last chapter, inhabit northeastern Africa’s Nile River. The Nile also has bolti (Oreochromis niloticus), barbel (Schilbe mystus), elephant-snout fish (Gnathonemus petersii), African lungfish and mudfish (Protopterus species), catfish (species in the suborder Siluroidea), and tigerfish (Hydrocynus species).

Fish Consumption among Primates and Early Humans

Pre-Human Fish Consumption

Many primates, including macaques (Macaca species), baboons (Papio species), chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), bonobos (Pan paniscus), and orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus, P. abelii, and P. tapanuliensis), infrequently eat fish. Canadian psychologist Anne E. Russon suspected that humanity’s ancestors resembled orangutans in using sticks to catch fish.10 Our predecessors—for example, Australopithecus and Paranthropus (see Chapter 3)—were probably omnivores and might have eaten fish. The earliest fish bones—from catfish—in middens are nearly 2 million years old."

Catfish. (Photo from author.)

FIGURE 5.2 Catfish. (Photo from author.)

Role of Fish in Human Evolution

Anthropologists associate them with our genus, Homo, whose evolution Chapter 3 recounted. If these bones marked fishing’s origin, they indicate that our ancestors ate fish as the brain expanded.12 Fish must therefore have provided nutrients and calories for enlargement, an argument Chapter 4 summarized in favor of meat. Fish fatty acids may have spurred brain and central nervous system (CNS) development. Chapter 2 mentioned fatty acids’ role in forming neural membranes. This rationale accentuates fish’s significance to human evolution.

Emphasizing fish’s dietary antiquity, British zoologist Francis Downes Ommanney (1903-1980) stated that fishing and hunting originated together, occupying humanity “a good long time.”13

This opinion neglects fishing’s primacy if British-American anthropologist Brian Murray Fagan (b. 1936) is correct that the activity began around 2 million years ago and if American anthropologist Clark Spencer Larsen (b. 1952)—mentioned throughout this book—is right that hunting is about 700,000 years old.14 People depended on fish and shellfish as especially concentrated protein, a nutrient indispensable to growing global populations, Ommanney believed.15

A variant of the Paleo diet favors fish. American nutritionist and exercise physiologist Loren Cordain (b. 1950) asserted that for some 2.5 million years lean animals fed hunter-gatherers.16 During this duration, evolution shaped humans to eat animals with little saturated fat. What fats they had were omega 3, a type of fatty acid that Chapter 2 defined. In other words, evolution fashioned us to consume seafood and game. Rather than being substandard, fish provided fatty acids, protein, vitamins, and minerals suited to our biology and lifeways. People suffered obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease only upon eschewing fish and other sources of lean protein. This reasoning makes sense, though these maladies also stem from inactivity, this book argues. Chapters 1 and 3 discussed the use of hunter-gatherers as models for us.

Another thesis, however, deemphasizes fish. Chapter 4 reprised the argument that our ancestors prioritized meat. They turned to fish and other items only when the hunt did not feed everyone.17 Far from being desirable, fish indicated privation. Anthropologists in this camp, rejecting the idea that fishing and hunting are equally old or that fishing predated hunting, believe that inclusion of fish and shellfish in diets came late in human evolution. Even if humankind sampled them early, they were uncommon as food until modern peoples arose roughly 150,000years ago.

Even if it occupied the second tier, as some anthropologists believe, seafood might have given modern peoples an advantage over Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals or Neandertals), whose evolution Chapter 3 discussed. A 2009 study of carbon and nitrogen isotopes—Chapter 1 defined an isotope—suggested that Neanderthals in what are today France, Germany, Belgium, and Croatia ate large mammals rather than fish but that modern humans had a broader diet that included fish and shellfish.18 Such breadth may have helped us survive scarcity better than Neanderthals.

American anthropologist Bruce Hardy and French anthropologist Marie-Helene Moncel disagreed. Their 2011 examination of Payre in France’s Rhone Valley yielded stone tools whose wear indicated processing of fish and shellfish.19 Because Neanderthals occupied Payre, they must have eaten a diet as varied as ours. Neanderthals may have consumed sea bream (Pagrus major and Pagellus bogaraveo) and mussels (Mytilus galloprovincialis) along the Mediterranean coast and salmon (Oncorhynchus species) near the Black Sea. Such diversity supports Israeli anthropologist Ofer Bar-Yosef’s (1937-2020) argument in Chapter 3 that Neanderthals ate what their surroundings provided.

German bio-geologists Herve Bocherens and Dorothee Drucker rejected fish, however, tracing high nitrogen isotope L5N concentrations in fossils from Crimea to the mammoths (Mammuthus species), rather than seafood, that modern humans ate.20 Chapters 1 and 4 discussed use of isotopes to determine what people ate. Belief that moderns and Neanderthals consumed similar foods implies that Neanderthals also seldom ate fish and shellfish, an idea that affirms the above opinion about them.

Fishing and Humanity

Despite this attempt to demote fish, humans pursued it avidly enough to invent the fishhook before 21,000 BCE and the fishing net around 6800 BCE.21 Because nets degrade and so escape discovery, an earlier date is possible. Egyptian, Greek, and Roman texts describe how ancients fished in the Mediterranean Sea, rivers, and lakes. Naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) wrote that Greeks and Romans fermented fish intestines to make a sauce known as garum, which remained popular in the eastern Mediterranean basin throughout the Middle Ages.22 Around 1000 CE the English began eating more ocean fish, evidence of overfishing in lakes and rivers.23

Fishhooks. (Photo from author.)

FIGURE 5.3 Fishhooks. (Photo from author.)

Besides these developments, Amerindians on California’s Channel Islands, treated in Chapter 9, harvested abundant shellfish around 9500 BCE.24 South of the equator Peruvians on the Pacific coast used spears to impale fish 500years later.25 In the second millennium BCE, they began fishing in reed boats, catching Peruvian anchovies (Engraulis ringens) with cotton nets.26 New Guineans made nets from spider webs.27 In other cases, people fashioned human hair, wool, or leather into nets. About 500 BCE, occupants of Vancouver Island, Canada, harvested mollusks (species in the phylum Mollusca) some 20 meters (21.9 yards or 65.6 feet) below the surface.28 In shallow water, women and children gathered shellfish. In addition, w'omen made nets. Men fished at depth with lines, nets, and spears. New Zealand’s Maori collected shellfish from lakes and rivers when large prey failed to feed everyone.

In the fourteenth century CE, sailboats trawled the Baltic and North Seas.29 Along nineteenth- century British, Belgian, and Californian coasts, horses (Equus caballus) pulled nets ashore.30 California and the Pacific Northwest supplied salmon. Nineteenth-century France and Britain began trawling with steamboats.31 In the twentieth century, gasoline and diesel engines powered fishing boats.32 In 2018, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome, Italy, listed China, Indonesia, the United States, Russia, Peru, India, and Japan as catchers of most fish.33

Salmon. (Photo from author.)

FIGURE 5.4 Salmon. (Photo from author.)

Fish and Shellfish Consumption in Modernity

Geography and Economics of Consumption

Before globalism and as implied above, fish and shellfish fed people near coasts, lakes, and rivers and at high latitudes during winters, when plants are unavailable. Communities in such environs and outside the global economy eat the local catch. East, South, and Southeast Asia consume fish and shellfish as a staple. Outside these areas, they feed Mexico, Cote d’Ivoire, and Mozambique. Europeans also tend to eat much fish, though Africa and the Levant consume the least. The poor get animal protein, if any, from fish and shellfish.

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