Aquatic animal resources in Prehistoric Aegean, Greece
© Mylona; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2014
Received: 9 December 2013
Accepted: 9 January 2014
Published: 13 May 2014
This paper explores the early stages in the history of fishing in the Aegean Sea in Greece, and highlights its formative phases and its specific characteristics in different points in time. This is testified by various physical remains, such as fish bones, fishing tools, and representations in art, which are gathered in the course of archaeological research. The aquatic resources in the Aegean Sea have been exploited and managed for millennia by communities that lived near the water and often made a living from it. The earliest evidence for a systematic, intensive exploitation of marine resources in the Aegean Sea dates to the Mesolithic, eleven millennia ago. In the Neolithic period, the adoption of a sedentary, agro-pastoral way of life led to a reduction in the intensity of fishing and shellfish gathering. Its importance as an economic resource remained high only in certain regions of rich, eutrophic waters. In the Bronze Age, an era of social complexity and centralized economy, the exploitation of aquatic, mostly marine, resources became a complex, multi-faceted activity which involved subsistence, industry and ideology. The range of preferred fish and invertebrate species, the fishing technology, and the processing of fish and shellfish in order to produce elaborate foods or prestige items are all traceable aspects of the complex relationship between humans and the aquatic resources throughout the prehistory of fishing and shellfish gathering in the Aegean area. The broadening of collaboration between archaeology and physical sciences offers new means to explore these issues in a more thorough and nuanced manner.
The aquatic resources of the Hellenic area have been systematically exploited by coastal communities that lived by the sea, the rivers and the lakes, for a very long period of time. This interaction begun at least as early as the 11th millennium BP (Before Present) and it lead to a wide range of fishing choices and strategies. In these one can trace adaptations to the local ecosystems but also a reflection of the interests and priorities of the fishing communities involved in the exploitation of these resources. Despite the observed variability there are certain constant features which survived through the millennia to the modern era. The range of fish and shellfish, fishing tools and processing methods are some of these features. This paper provides a short review of these issues in the context of prehistoric Aegean, a period in time when the basic features of the exploitation of aquatic resources were formulated.
Ancient fishing is explored through a multi-level approach by archaeology and history. The main categories of data for such an approach are the archaeological remains of aquatic resources and fishing tools as well as records in literature and representations in art. The aquatic animal remains, mostly fish bones, sea shells, crustaceans and coral skeletons, are identified using reference collections and relevant monographs; various features of these remains are recorded, particularly those that are pertinent to the animals’ exploitation by humans [1, 2]. Remains of fishing implements (most commonly their durable elements such as the bone or metal fishing hooks, the stone weights or the pumice floaters) are also recovered archaeologically . Records of aquatic animals in ancient texts, along with relevant representations in art provide further evidence on fishing related matters. They also illustrate an elusive aspect of the past, i.e. how people thought and felt about the aquatic resources and their harvesting . However, the exploitation of these resources and the particular choices made by the different communities in different times and locations, are governed not only by cultural rules and traditions but also by the restrictions imposed by the dynamics of the aquatic environments and the biology and ethology of the exploited organisms . Therefore, archaeological and historical research is supplemented by a range of natural sciences, such as ichthyology, marine biology, chemistry, etc. It should be emphasized that such a combined approach, effective as it may be, does not provide a snapshot of the available aquatic resources at that period but it reflects the resources that were accessed by humans, of those elements that were used by people as food, raw material and/or symbols.
The abundance of marine resources in the Mesolithic
The earliest evidence for the systematic, complex and precisely orchestrated exploitation of aquatic resources dates to the 11th millennium BP, at the end of an era of rapid environmental changes and the beginning of the Holocene. This period is conventionally called the Mesolithic. It is the era of the opening of the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea, which along with the increased flow of the large rivers in Northern Greece led to increased productivity of the Aegean Sea [6–8]. Culturally the Aegean shores were sparsely populated by communities of hunters, gatherers, and fishermen [9, 10]. There is unequivocal evidence that Mesolithic people, were able to cross considerable distances between the mainland and the Aegean islands of the time [11, 12]. Three archaeological sites, two caves (Franchthi Cave in Argolid  and the Cave of Cyclops at Yioura in Sporades [14, 15]) and the open air site of Maroulas on Kythnos  provide ample evidence for fishing during the early Holocene. Excavation at these sites produced thousands of fish bones and scales, as well as a large number of sea shells, marine mammal bones and sea bird bones. The ensuing discussion is based on data from a number of sites [17–29].
Fishing in lakes, rivers, and the sea in the Neolithic
The Mesolithic fishing bonanza, when marine aquatic resources were abundant and intensively exploited in coastal and near-coastal sites did not seem to continue in the following millennia. From the Neolithic period, between the 7th and the 4th millenium BC, after the adoption of agriculture and animal husbandry as the main economic modes throughout the Hellenic peninsula [34–37], the exploitation of aquatic resources, mostly the marine ones, diminishes. The contribution of fish and aquatic molluscs to the Neolithic diet never superseded that of the domestic animals (i.e. the cattle, the pig and the ovicaprids).
Bronze Age exploitation of the aquatic resources as a multi-level act
The migratory fish, which seasonally approach the coast and are traditionally caught by stationary traps that are linked to the coast , are less often caught in the southern Aegean than in the north. They are not altogether an untapped resource however. The wall paintings of the “Little Fisherman” at Akrotiri, vividly illustrate the capture of dolphin fish (Corypahena hypurus) and of little tunnies (Euthynus aleteratus) or bullet tunnies (Auxis rochei) [58, 59]. At the same site, a second piece of evidence suggests that the migratory fish were exploited even if not in large scale; this is the unique finding of two slices of tuna (Thunnus sp.) discovered in a frying pan. These were cooked in a makeshift kitchen, probably just hours before the catastrophic volcanic eruption occurred .
The special uses and the technologies involved in the exploitation of the marine molluscs and the elaborate processing of fish in the Bronze Age placed the sea and its creatures into spheres other than the dietary and the technological. These are the spheres of social competition and ideology.
The research on the exploitation of aquatic resources in antiquity was vastly enriched in the last decades by the collaboration of archaeology with biology and ecology. This rendered the physical remains of aquatic organisms, such as fish bones, sea shells, etc., eloquent testimonies of past fishing practices. Recent scientific developments open up more possibilities for collaboration between the archaeology of aquatic resources and the natural sciences. Molecular genetic analyses for identifying the remains of aquatic animals or their by-products e.g. [77, 78] and isotopic analysis e.g.  for exploring issues of provenance, diet, etc., are two such examples.
The exploration of the character of fishing and fishing products in the distant past reveals a picture which is both familiar and exotic. The sea, its organisms, the fishing tools and methods, the processing and consumption of aquatic foods are all very similar to what is known from Greece of the previous decades. The societies involved in fishing and consuming its products, however, were different on many aspects. A plethora of evidence suggests that the meanings given to these familiar activities were also different in those societies. Today, in this era of globalization, the relationship between the “common” and “familiar” on the one hand and the “different” and “strange” on the other, as these emerge from the study of fishing in the past, is particularly relevant.
DM is an archaeologist, who specializes in zoo-archaeology, with special emphasis in the analysis of remains of aquatic animals. She got her doctoral degree in Archaeology, University of Southampton (UK), and she wrote a thesis entitled “Fish-eating in Greece from the fifth century BC to the seventh century AD: a story of impoverished fisherman or luxurious fish banquets?”. Her research focuses on various aspects of maritime communities that lived around the Aegean and the Mediterranean Sea in the past. DM is currently holding a post-doctoral position at the Institute of Aegean Prehistory, Crete, analyzing assemblages of animal remains from archaeological sites that range in date from Mesolithic to Byzantine.
This paper was first conceived as a presentation for the 15th Pan-Hellenic Congress of Ichthyologists “Aquatic ecosystems: uses, impacts and management”, Thessaloniki, 10-13th of September 2013”. I would like to thank Prof. Dr. T.J. Abatzopoulos for encouraging its publication in expanded form in this journal. I would also like to thank Dr. Tania Devetzi and Prof. A. Sampson for their help accessing the illustrations from Akrotiri, Cave of Cyclops and Maroulas and Emeritus Professors P. Economides and N. Galanidou for their constructive comments on earlier drafts of this paper. The comments of two anonymous reviewers are greatly appreciated.
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