Clay Swindell: Connecting to the past through prehistoric fisheries

The Daily Advance

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From the time of the earliest historical observations by English explorers, North Carolina has long been noted for its abundance of marine and riverine resources. Dozens of species of fish and shellfish, fit for human consumption, continue to abound in our sounds, rivers and lakes.

When 16th Century scientist and explorer Thomas Harriot described important fish present in the region and how the Indians fished for them he wrote:

“For Four Months of the year, February, March, April and May, there are plenty of Sturgeons: And also in the same months Herrings, some of the ordinary bigness as ours in England, but the most part far greater, of eighteen, twentie inches, and some two foot in length or better; both these kinds of fish in the months are most plentiful, and in best season, which we found to be most delicate and pleasant meat.

The inhabitants use to take them two manner of ways; the one is by a kind of wear made of reeds which in that country are very strong. The other way which is more strange; is with poles made sharp at one end, by shooting them into the fish after the manner as Irishmen cast dartes, either as they are rowing in their boats or else as they are wading in the shallows for the purpose. “

His basic account provides a snapshot of a few key fish species important to Native Americans during the 16th century. For many reasons it is difficult to compare historic population numbers with modern ones based solely on early written descriptions. However, Harriot’s report is useful in that it highlights a few of the anadromous fish that visit our sounds and rivers.

Anadromous fish are those species that naturally inhabit salt water environments during mature phases of life, but return to fresh or mildly brackish bodies of water to spawn. Historically, species of the family Acipenserdae, or sturgeon, are represented primarily by scutes found at archaeological sites. Atlantic, Acipenser oxyrinchus, and the smaller short nose, Acipenser brevirostrum, are both represented.

Native Americans would have harvested them from weirs and nets. While Harriot noted an abundance of sturgeon in the 16th Century, today they are rarely recorded. Atlantic Sturgeon was recently placed on the endangered species list and short nose sturgeon was put on the list in the 1960s though they are not noted in the region anymore.

The other important anadromous fish, described as herrings by Harriot, are species of the family Clupeidae in the genus Alosa. This includes blueback herring, Alosa aestivalis; alewife, A. pseudoharengus; American shad, A. sapidissima; and hickory shad, A. mediocris. Given their small and fragile nature, bones from these species are not typically recovered from archaeological excavations. As with sturgeon, modern shad and herring populations do not resemble those of the past.

Anadromous fisheries, particularly those that focused on the exploitation of shad and river herring, provided an important seasonal food resource to both prehistoric and historic cultures of eastern North Carolina. They were predictable, capable of producing large quantities, easily harvested, and storable. You can find out more about the importance of these fisheries at the Museum.

Clay Swindell is a collections specialist and archeologist working at Museum of the Albemarle.