Journal of World Prehistory

, Volume 6, Issue 1, pp 1-49

First online:

Prehistoric nearshore and littoral fishing in the eastern Tropical Pacific: An ichthyological evaluation

  • Richard CookeAffiliated withSmithsonian Tropical Research Institute

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Marine fish bones are abundant components of human food remains at prehistoric sites in the eastern Tropical Pacific. Their quantification and interpretation in terms of human procurement strategies have been hampered by the use of large-meshed sieves and by the obstacles presented to faunal experts by fish taxonomic diversity. Since many important food fish families are speciose, this paper emphasizes the importance of species-level identifications. Making extensive use of Spanish-language articles on fish distribution and ecology, and the commercial and artisanal fisheries literature, it identifies groups of nearshore and littoral fish species that show greater and lesser tolerance for hard substrates (reefs and rocks), estuaries and coastal lagoons, and deeper clearer waters farther offshore. Most of the regional archaeological sites were located near estuarine habitats. The drab-colored fish they attract are generally poorly known. Hence, a particularly detailed analysis is offered of fish behavior within low salinity coastal inlets. Fourteen archaeofaunal fish samples from Costa Rica, Panama, and Ecuador are evaluated in the light of the environmental information generated by the biological and fisheries surveys. It is concluded that most sites have a broadly estuarine orientation and that the input of hard substrates is everywhere <10%. Two sites, Salango, in Ecuador, and Vidor, in Costa Rica, exploited epipelagic fish that swim in large shoals and deep water demersal predators. Sites situated more than 10 km from the coast exploited a wide variety of marine fish. In Parita Bay, Panama, a comparison of fish faunas from Cerro Mangote (6000 B.P.) and Sitio Sierra (1800 B.P.) elicits the hypothesis that regional fishing strategies shifted between these dates from a shore-based, netless strategy to a more complex one that incorporated fine-meshed gill-nets and watercraft.

Key words

fishing prehistoric subsistence Tropical Pacific estuaries Central and South America