Net To Net – A Brief History of Seafood – Part 1

Very early, in our evolutionary history, we turned to marine animals to provide us with nourishment. Archaeological excavations suggest that early humans ate mussels during prehistoric times.

Stone Age Man – Fish  was a part of their diet

The invention and use of tools and technologies, in a simplistic way, defines one hypothetical archaeological period of human civilization from another, the Paleolithic Age (old stone age) – Mesolithic (middle stone age) – Neolithic Age (new stone age) – Bronze Age – Iron age- and Modern Age. The main challenges being food, shelter and clothing, most of these tools were developed by humans to help them fend for themselves better, this included the ability to hunt better, be it on land or in water.

Amber bead & bone fish hook
As our ancestors began to improve on the tools they built, they began to actively harvest marine animals. This meant that they were soon able to include other aquatic food like shellfish, in addition to brown mussels, to their diet, which, till then, had consisted mostly of land animals and plants. Through the ages, superior tools and techniques improved their efficiency, their reach increased, and they were introduced to a variety of seafood that had not been accessible to them earlier.

Ancient Civilizations

Over a period of tens of thousands of years, man started to make the transition from a nomadic existence to an agricultural society. Domestication of plants and animals started to take place. Communities began to grow around farms, forming societies, eventually growing into cities. These communities required some form of governance to help in the allocation of resources and tasks, giving rise to the earliest known civilizations.

Naturally, more produce of plants, meat and fish was required to feed these growing populations. This lead to the development and use of specialized tools for agriculture, hunting and fishing. Where marine harvesting is concerned, bone harpoons are one of the oldest found tools that were used for catching bigger fish, like catfish, which could feed larger groups of people. Fishing nets too evolved as humans discovered better and stronger material to weave the fishnets with.

Harpoon – Azilian Age
Some of the oldest known civilizations like Mesopotamia (which means ‘Land Between the Rivers’), Nile Valley, Indus Valley and Yellow Water, along the Huang-He River, all flourished in river valleys. The waters of these rivers were used for irrigating farms, for their daily needs, and for sourcing fish. The Indus people used nets for catching carp and shellfish. Research suggests that the Babylonians ate dried fish with bread made of barley. The early Egyptians that lived around the Nile were not only consuming seafood but had also begun to indulge in fishing as a sport; the Canadian Museum Of History shares some insights on how far the seafood culture had developed in ancient Egypt, “ The Nile, the marshes of the delta and the Mediterranean Sea offered them a rich variety of species. Fishing methods included the use of a hook and line, harpoons, traps, and nets. Birds, including geese and ducks, were also hunted in the marshes and papyrus thickets along the Nile. Small fishing boats (skiffs) were made from papyrus reeds, which are naturally filled with air pockets, making them particularly buoyant. Skiffs were also used for hunting game in the Nile marshes. “ (original piece)

Fish on Papyrus – Egyptian

To The Waters, Ahoy!

Being equipped with more reliable gear, humans had begun venturing further into the sea. The Phoenician civilization, which consisted of a bunch of city-states that developed around the Mediterranean coastline from 1550 to 300 BC, are one of the earliest known seafarers. These adept sailors, with admirable maritime skills, used sea routes for trade and fishing.
Phoenician ship carved on the face of a sarcophagus. 2nd Century CE
Poem on fishing – Halieutika

The Greek author Oppian of Corycus, in his 3500 lines poem on fishing called Halieutika, wrote about the use of spears, nets, and tridents for fishing. Another Greek, a historian called Polybius, of the Hellenistic Period, is said to have mentioned the hunting of swordfish with a harpoon in his work ‘The Histories.’

Marine archaeologists, who’ve studied a second-century CE. Roman shipwreck, suggest that the Romans had, by this time, begun trading live fish. They estimate that the fish tank on the ship would’ve probably been able to carry 440 pounds of live fish.

On the northern coast of Peru, the Moche people, an Andean civilization (1st to the 8th century CE), who documented the happenings of their times through art, had painted pots with images of people, battles, animals, birds, and fish. 

Moche Fisherman, 300 CE

The Story Continues…

With each passing era, our pursuit for seafood kept pushing us to continue looking for more efficient ways of harvesting, storing and transporting seafood. This rewarding journey has been instrumental in bringing the joy of seafood to people’s lives, and it continues to do so today.

A boy holding a platter of fruits and what may be a bucket of crabs, in a kitchen with fish and squid, 3rd century

See how humanity’s seafood story unfolds with the second instalment of Net-To-Net next week.


National Geographic, First Rulers of the Mediterranean: Ancient Phoenicians built a maritime civilization around the Mediterranean. Published on Thursday, July 25, 2013, by Ryan Schleeter. Online at .

Discovery News, Archaeology: Roman Ship Carried Live Fish Tank. Published on un 3, 2011 03:00 AM ET, by Rossella Lorenzi.

BBC, Science & Nature, TV & Radio Follow-up, Programmes: Horizon, The Lost Civilisation Of Peru: The rise and fall of the ‘Greeks of the Andes’. Published on Sept 17, 2014.

Leave a Comment