Bone fishhooks

By Andy Hemmings

Prehistoric fishhooks have been found in several of Florida's rivers. Florida's prehistoric fishhooks were made of bone, shell, antler, and possibly stone. All of the examples I would like to discuss here are bone hooks found in the Aucilla River.

Bone hooks exist in various forms:

a) Gorge - bipointed bone about four inches long, often with a hafting groove in the center.

b) Composite - from more than one piece of bone, lashed together to make the shank and point a usable hook.

c) Raccoon Bacula - roughly two inch curved bone with a sharp tip. Some have a hafting area near the head.

d) J-shaped long bone hook - most common, probably made from deer long bones. Arm curve is ~180 degrees making a J of the shank and point.

e) V-shaped long bone hook - probably made of deer long bones. No real arm, point comes from base of the shank, generally ~130 degrees of curvature- thus you have a rough V in profile.

f) Phalanx J-shaped hook - made from deer phalanges almost exclusively, arm has distinctive flat squared bottom, shank and point approaching parallel as in the other J-shaped hooks.

Gorge hooks may represent a stage between leisters or bone point tipped spears on the one hand and modern style hook and line fishhooks on the other. It is not unlikely that this was the first kind of line-fishing hook. The gorge works when a fish swallows and the line is pulled, thus turning the hook sideways so that the points stick in the throat of the fish when it is set.

The shank of a composite bone fishhook found in Sloth Hole appears to have fine thread imprints in mastic residue on the flared head. It will probably take a destructive test to determine the true composition of the ridges because a thin coating of geothite prevents clear examination, even with a microscope. The bottom of the shank is slightly bevelled, as though prepared to haft a point to make a V-shape. Several semi-triangular short bone points have been found that fit snugly against the bevelled end making a large serviceable hook.

Raccoon bacula have been cut nearly in half, the distal end removed, and then sharpened to a point to form this type of hook. One Aucilla example has a hafting area 1cm long cut into the top of the shank. Singly these hooks seem unlikely to be very effective. Probably they were combined to form a composite treble hook. I plan a replication study of this hypothesis to see if it will work.

The most common type of bone fishhook in the Aucilla collections is the J-shaped long bone hook. These large hooks are probably made from the cannon bones of deer. Frequently the interior curvature of the bone is preserved in the arm of the hook. Generally these hooks are quite large, greater than 4cm. However, a single tiny J hook (shorter than 2cm) from the Aucilla is in the museum collection. Three J-type hooks have been found at Sloth Hole in the last three years.

A close relative is the V-shaped long bone hook. As a rule these are smaller than J-shaped long bone hooks. The arm between the shank and the point has been nearly removed from this form of hook. The point comes right out of the base of the shank and the hook looks almost like a check mark in profile.

Possibly the most interesting fishhook from the Aucilla River is a Phalanx J-shaped hook that Jack Simpson found several years ago. Normally this hook type is made by grinding a section of a deer toe into a flat bottomed expanded J-type hook. The flat bottom is very diagnostic of the hook being made from a phalanx. This particular hook is very large to have come from a deer and may well be from the extinct Pleistocene Equus. If this is indeed the case it puts a very early date on hook and line fishing in North America. Many measurements of deer and horse toes will have to be made before this can be said with much certainty.

All of these forms have been found in the Aucilla River, and many have been found in Sloth Hole during ARPP operations. In 1995 Terry McKibben found a J-shaped long bone hook that had a broken head (Fig. 2a). This hook was pictured in the 1996 Aucilla River Times. Also in 1995 we recovered a complete composite hook shank and a complete bipointed gorge with a faint hafting groove at the center (Fig. 1). During the 1996 field season Alyssa McManus found a complete J-shaped long bone hook in the screen from the upper leaf/peat stratum (above Level 2B). See Figure 2c and please note that the ball shaped head is very unusual. This hook was not found in situ, but a date on the strata containing it will be useful nevertheless. In 1997 we found a 7cm long J-shaped fishhook in Unit 41. This hook is broken at the bottom of the shank as it started to curve into the arm ( Fig. 2b).

The total sample of Bone fishhooks known to archaeologists in Florida is very small. I have been working on a typology that tries to account for as much variation as possible. As more hooks are donated or loaned to the Florida Museum of Natural History for measurements and casting this typology can be refined and grow. If you have prehistoric fishhooks of any material I would very much like to talk with you. If you would be willing to give us access to them please contact me through the ARPP or at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.