Book review – Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization

Brian Fagan is a celebrated archaeologist and author who has written many books on the topic of environmental history. Several of these sit on my shelves, though I admit this is the first book by his hand that I have read. With Fishing, Fagan presents a deep history of fishing from the time of our human ancestors up to the present day, highlighting its overlooked role in the history of human civilization. His story spans the globe and pieces together a fragmented and complicated puzzle.


Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization”, written by Brian Fagan, published by Yale University Press in November 2017 (hardback, 346 pages)

Fishing undoubtedly started off as opportunistic food gathering. Fagan imagines our forebears catching catfish marooned in drying pools. Shellfish were similarly easily exploited, and our ancestors have left clear traces of this in the form of enormous piles of discarded shells – so-called middens – that built up over centuries. It is not uncommon for such piles to be metres deep. But besides middens, traces of fishing in the archaeological record are scarce. There are several reasons for this; the tools of the trade (nets, ropes, rafts, and traps) decay easily and are rarely found, fish bones are small and only recovered by thorough excavation techniques that sieve sediments, and the story of humanity played out on shorelines that have since disappeared underwater as sea levels rose over the course of many millennia.

Fishing plays out in three acts. First, Fagan explores the earliest history of fishing as humanity fished at a subsistence level. In eleven chapters, each with helpful maps, he takes us out of Africa, along the coastlines of Asia, over the Bering land bridge between Russia and Alaska, and down the coast of North and South America. Further chapters explore archaeological evidence for fishing in Europe, South-east Asia, Japan, and the multitude of islands dotting the Pacific ocean. I found the story of fishing for sturgeon in the Danube river and the crossing of the Bering landbridge fascinating to read.

“I found the story of fishing for sturgeon in the Danube river and the crossing of the Bering landbridge fascinating to read.”

The second act chronicles the rise of agriculture. I recently reviewed Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, which highlighted the importance of grains. But Fagan adds another facet to this story. With stratified societies now coming into existence, fishing changed from a means of subsistence to a trade. Through collaboration and new tools, fishermen increased their efforts and started to catch surplus fish to sell on. Fagan looks at fishing practices in ancient Egypt, Greece, and the Roman empire, and goes into the various techniques for preserving fish so it can be transported as a commodity. As an aside, the Romans had a taste for a rather fishy sauce called garum which was made from fermented fish blood and entrails, served in a briny liquid. Fagan also explores fishing practices in the Red Sea, around the Arabian peninsula, the East African coast, and the coastline of India. He builds a very believable case that coastal villages of fishermen were vital waystations in the early days of seafaring, providing much-needed replenishments and trade posts as naval trading routes started to develop along these coastlines.

The third act looks at further increases in fishing efforts following the fall of the Roman empire and the rise and rise of Christianity (and with it a huge number of meat-free, but not fish-free, holy days). Concerns about overfishing were raised as early as the beginning of the 1500s when various European nations starting exploiting stocks of cod in the Atlantic and off the coast of Newfoundland. Having reviewed All the Boats on the Ocean: How Government Subsidies Led to Global Overfishing last year, the last stretch of the story, looking at global overfishing in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, was familiar territory. It was when Fagan casually summarised in a few pages what Finley made the subject of a whole book, that I realised the sheer scope of this work. Each of these chapters could easily be a book-length treatment of its own (another example is the forthcoming The Fishmeal Revolution: The Industrialization of the Humboldt Current Ecosystem on the development of the fisheries off the Peru-Chile coast, which Fagan also covers here shortly).

Fishing is thus a tour de force. As far as I can tell, no one has previously attempted to give such a broad, global overview of fishing. I admit that I occasionally found my attention flagging, but that has nothing to do with Fagan’s writing style. It is more that the book is rich in archaeological and anthropological detail, which are topics I am less familiar with, and under normal circumstances perhaps also less fascinated by. However, Fagan provides so many interesting stories that he managed to draw me back in time and again. He also excels at that most difficult of traits for any writer: leaving things out. I am sure Fagan is sitting on enough material to write a book double or triple this size. Instead, he masterfully condenses his material in short, crisp chapters that never exceed fifteen pages. And, being the senior scientist he has become, he delivers his story in a calm and reasoned way, pointing out where the evidence for certain interpretations is speculative, and where it is solid. History and archaeology readers will find much in this book to enjoy, but so will inquisitive readers of other disciplines. It certainly achieves its goal of putting fishing on par with hunter-gathering and agriculture in the history of human civilization.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Fishing paperback, hardback, ebook, audiobook or audio CD

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:


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