Oklahoma's number one blog for natural and cultural history.
This morning I had the pleasure of escorting Fred Greenlee around some of our collections. Fred is a producer for the History Channel show “Swamp People,” and has been doing some location scouting in southern Oklahoma. He called me up earlier this week, hoping that our museum had some examples of prehistoric fish hooks he could photograph, to tie into an upcoming episode of the show.
I asked Don Wyckoff, our curator of archaeology and, sure enough, we do have some examples of fish hooks, both finished hooks and several in various stages of completion. Dr. Wyckoff brought them out of the collection for Fred to photograph, and explained to us how these fish hooks were made.
The work begins with a little piece of deer or turkey bone. The tool-maker would use a piece of sandstone to wear away the bone at an angle at one end, using the natural interior curve of the bone to form the U-shape that will become the hook. Once the U-shape was honed, the artisan would then begin to sand or break away bits of the bone from the edge of the curve to form the hook and the shank. A groove around the end of the shank would keep the line in place. Bigger hooks could be made from larger pieces of bone, of course, and we saw one whose shank was about two inches long, but the hook had broken off.
I was amazed both at the delicate craftsmanship of these little fishhooks, and at the ingenuity required to come up with this technique for creating the hooked shape out of a curved bit of bone. There’s some serious geometry in this design!
Dr. Wyckoff tells us that peoples all over the plains and into Georgia and Tennessee were making this same kind of fish hooks, and hooks had been used as far back as 6,000 years ago. (The ones he showed us were about 2,800 years old.) Hooks are rare because they are made of bone, and most are quite small, so they often decompose unless they are deposited in soils with just the right chemical make-up to preserve them, as these were.
Fishing, Wyckoff explained, was an activity that was often done by children in hunter-gatherer societies. It was a way they could contribute to the household before they had developed skills in more aggressive types of hunting. Seine nets were also used to catch fish, often in oxbow lakes where river fish would congregate. Our collection includes some very nice net-weights made for this purpose.
I looked at those little hooks and I realized something: people who lived 2,800 or 6,000 years ago were every bit as ingenious and skilled as people today… they were just further down the technology discovery chain. The first human who sought out a way to catch a single fish using bait on a hand-crafted hook was every bit as forward thinking as Bill Gates, and the technology that arrived from that brainstorm was every bit as far reaching and life changing for the people at the time. We stand, as Sir Isaac Newton said, on the shoulders of Giants. Sometimes we stand there and fish.