Saturday, 25 January 2014

Fish, fish, fish!

What is our perception of past hunter-gatherers? That they lived in harmony with the nature? If so, why the world-wide project has on the history of fishing found out that the human history is littered with instances where people have not realised that they basically overfished or killed their fish stock to extinction. The images about the fish market or storage room workers in Hamburg moving huge carps at the end of the 19th century or the banks of conk shells on a Caribbean beach tell their story. It just may be in the human nature that we do not know when to stop in time. Even if there is now a moratorium on fishing cod in the North Sea the fish has disappeared and not come back. We may have conservation efforts, but sometimes they come too late.

It is interesting to hear that the whole project started when a [historian] friend of Poul Holm has wandered into an ecologist conference in the American East Coast – as you do as an historian – where ecologists tried to figure out among themselves how to approach historical ecological data and were clueless. Since then historical and archaeological projects from Indonesia to the Central America and South Africa, not to mention the Baltic Sea project where Cambridge was involved, have presented historical records, analysed fish scales from geological deposits and looked for fish bones from archaeological excavations. The trends are unbelievable. Even the giant turtles were hunted to extinction from some of their historical nesting beaches before the Conquistadors arrived.

HMAP project home page

This History of Marine Animal Populations has created information nobody knew that would be essential. It makes archaeologists and historians feel good, since we are useful for scientists. They could not find the historical fishing catch records from a Russian monastery by the White Sea. Archaeologists and historians have a long-term perspective that has been lacking from the ecologists who tried to study animal populations with laborative experiments that are fruitless when you need long-term understanding about the human-animal interaction. My now retired professor always said that archaeology is as useful as bird song. How wrong he now seems!

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