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Rise of Civilization Made Possible by Fish



(p. C7) The subtitle of "Fishing" rather misleads: Mr. Fagan, an archaeological writer and emeritus professor at U.C. Santa Barbara, devotes nearly half this book to the way fishing was practiced for hundreds of thousands of years in subsistence cultures around the world, beginning with pre-Neanderthal hominids trapping catfish in shallow pools or shrinking rivers. He goes on to survey ancient fishing practices in the East and the West, the Old World and the New, and then the rise and fall of civilizations, the ascendancy of commerce, and such contemporary tools as lines 60 miles long bearing 30,000 baited hooks.

Along the way we find that fishing not only sustained ancient empires and modern nations to a degree we may not have grasped before--the pyramids of Giza, Mr. Fagan notes, could not have been built without hundreds of workers processing thousands of Nile fish each day, both fresh and dried, for laborers--but nurtured them as well.

The cooperative nature of fishing, wherever catches were rich and stable, fostered complex and hierarchical communities long before cities arose. The technologies of boat-building and seamanship seeded exploration. Shells, beads and dried or salted fish sustained long-distance trade networks, and even today, Mr. Fagan writes, fish are "the most traded commodity in the world." And of course preserved fish--nutritious, lightweight, long-lasting--were the primary fuel of merchant fleets, navies and conquering armies.

No coincidence, then, that civilizations flourished along seacoasts or river systems, and yet we conceive of civilization as primarily an agricultural phenomenon, and we celebrate the farmer as its founder and culture hero. By contrast, fishermen, writes Mr. Fagan, "lived at the obscure margins of society, anonymous, hard-working, and laconic, and largely outside the dramas that interest historians."



For the full review, see:


Richard Adams Carey. "What the Land Owes to the Sea." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Sept. 23, 2017): C7.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Sept. 22, 2017.)


The book under review, is:

Fagan, Brian. Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017.






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