Mankind’s superior status in nature can be ascribed to our ability to develop and use tools and technology in our struggle to survive. As far back as we know in history, people have caught fish for sustenance.
Innumerable methods have been developed in order to catch the various fish species living under quite different conditions, from arctic to tropical waters. Many of the fishing methods and types of tackle that have been developed over thousands of years are still in use, both for sport, sustenance and commercial fishing. Our focus here is to give a brief, general presentation of the development and historical background of the fish hook.
Nobody knows how long various kinds of fish hooks have been in use, but it is quite probable that the Cro-Magnon Man, who appeared on the scene 30 – 40,000 years ago, was familiar with and used fish hooks in his struggle to survive. The first known types of fish hooks were made of different materials. A problem for archaeologists, trying to establish the historical facts about fish hooks, is that the materials used were not very durable. We have reason to believe that the very first types of fish hooks were made of wood.
If you take a branch with twigs that stick out at suitable angles, it will take very little to make it into a reasonably good hook, and who could, for instance, wish for a sharper point than the pointed thorns of a hawthorn bush. A hook made from this material can be just as sharp as a modern hook. In the British Isles fishermen from Wales to the Thames have caught flounders with hawthorn hooks right up to our time. Other hook materials that we know of are shells, bone and horn. Among other things, Native Americans used the claw of a hawk and the beak of an eagle to make hooks.
Many people assume that the use of wooden hooks must have been more or less impractical. Since wood floats, the hook would probably have to be fastened to a stone or something else that was heavy enough to make it sink. But, it would be a rash assertion to maintain that fish will not take a floating hook. The fact is that fishermen have often regarded floating hooks as an advantage. Up until the end of the nineteenth century, and perhaps even later, Lapp fishermen used wooden hooks in the great cod fisheries in Lofoten in northern Norway. They carved their hooks of juniper, a tough variety of wood, and burned the point to make it hard. As late as the 1960s, Swedish fishermen preferred hooks made of juniper for burbot fishing. They claimed that the smell of juniper actually attracts the fish and also that the burbot has a tendency to spit out ordinary steel hooks. Juniper hooks with three sharp points, on the other hand, are impossible to dislodge.
An Indian god fishing off the coast of Peru. The picture of the boat
of rushes, with its terrifying dragon’s head, is a ceramic decoration
from the Mohica period which depicts the highest deity in combat
with the demons of the sea. (v. Hagen, The Desert Kingdoms of
Peru, London, 1965).
The Stone Age man had implements good enough to make extra fine hooks from bone. The fact that no one knows when bone hooks came into use, is largely due to the fact that bone as a material seldom defies the ages. Only under exceptionally favourable conditions, with extra calcareous soil, can bone be preserved for thousands of years.
The oldest known hooks seem to be the ones that have turned up in Czechoslovakia during the excavation of the skeletal finds from late Palaeolithic times. Ancient hooks have also been found in Egypt and Palestine. The oldest, found in Palestine, is believed to be 9,000 years old.
In Norway, the oldest known fish hooks were dug up in “Vistehulene”, some caves situated at Jæren, not far from Stavanger in the south-western part of Norway. These hooks are believed to be 7-8,000 years old. Finds of bone material on a ledge called Skipshelleren near Bergen are rather more recent. This is the richest discovery of bones that has been made in Norway, and among the wealth of implements here — tools and equipment for hunting and fishing — fish hooks have been found that show painstaking workmanship.
A somewhat more morbid example of a material used for fish hooks, can be been found on Easter Island. As there were no large mammals on this island, there was a shortage of bone, and the custom was adopted of making hooks of human bone. Since human sacrifices were made on Easter Island until the first missionaries arrived at the turn of the last century, they had an abundant supply of human bone.
In addition to hooks made out of one peace of wood, stone or bone, the Stone-Age Man often made compound hooks, with components — often of different materials — tied together. Compound hooks were stronger than the other types. While it is easy to break a slender, rounded bone hook, it would take a lot to break a securely tied compound hook.
As a general rule it appears that the most ancient hooks were made without barbs or any other refinement. The oldest hooks that have been found in Denmark and Norway indicate that only after thousands of years were they equipped with barbs, grooves, bulges or holes to facilitate attachment of the bait and line.
Forty-three hooks and the remains of hooks have been found in the Vistehulene caves at Jæren in south-western Norway. The oldest are possibly 7,000 years old.
Three types of hooks from the rich find at Skipshelleren, situated close to the city o