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Prehistoric Swordfish

Image courtesy of the University of Maine Hudson Museum

Prehistoric Swordfishing
UMaine anthropologist unravels the myths that contradict the artifacts unearthed in the land of birchbark canoes

About the Illustration: An 1851 woodcut engraving in Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion depicts Maine's Passamaquoddy tribe members hunting porpoises. The accompanying article in the weekly newspaper indicates that the porpoises were shot, the retrieved with fish spears, all from "frail" canoes. Porpoises or dolphins can weigh almost 300 pounds; north Atlantic swordfish at the turn of the century averaged 300-400 pounds, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council report.

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When Zane Grey wasn't captivating millions of readers with his Westerns, the prolific literary pioneer was having his own hunting and fishing adventures. His prey included the swordfish, which Grey characterized as "the noblest warrior of all the sea fishes."

"Lassoing mountain lions, hunting the grizzly bear, and stalking the fierce tropical jaguar, former pastimes of ours, are hardly comparable to the pursuit of Xiphias gladius," wrote Grey of the fish, whose Latin name means gladiator.

Such depictions of broadbills can be found throughout history. Maritime annals contain descriptions of the swordfish's "war-like" demeanor and malicious ferocity. Turn-of-the-century newspaper headlines herald stories of swordfish menacingly attacking fishermen and maniacally piercing dories. Sports fishermen today characterize the broadbill swordfish as an ocean predator like no other.

So how does an anthropologist explain the remains of such a beast-fish in coastal archaeological sites in Maine and the Maritimes, where native peoples traditionally traveled in birchbark canoes? For years, the well-documented disposition of the feisty swordfish and lack of archaeological record of boats opened the door to speculation that peoples of the Late Archaic period, 5,0003,800 years ago, must have used dugout canoes for such treacherous ocean hunting.

University of Maine anthropologist David Sanger was one of the experts who remained unconvinced that it was dugout technology that allowed paleo-Indian fishermen to hunt swordfish in the Gulf of Maine. Such an unfounded conclusion was the result of "stacking of one assumption upon another," says Sanger, quoting his longtime colleague, noted archaeologist James Wright of the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Birchbark canoes were more seaworthy, compared to hard-to-manage dugouts.

In 1975, Sanger first wrote about aboriginal swordfish hunting, looking at why the practice stopped on the Maine coast around 3,800 years ago. One hypothesis is that there was a significant change in swordfish range, brought on by cooling sea-surface temperatures; the other is that a cultural shift occurred when a new way of life was introduced during the Susquehanna period by peoples of the Chesapeake Bay region.

In subsequent years, Sanger has investigated swordfish behavior and sea-surface conditions in an attempt to understand why coastal middens younger than 3,800 years are void of pieces of swordfish bill, skeletal remains and artifacts made with the swords. He has consulted oceanographers and marine biologists about sea-surface conditions, climate change, and fish physiology and behavior. Key to his research were interviews with seven former swordfishermen from Nova Scotia who hunted by harpoon, technology with striking similarities to that unearthed in Late Archaic middens.

While the question is still open as to whether a change in culture or climate occurred 3,800 years ago, the logistics of aboriginal swordfish hunting are better understood and debunked as a result of Sanger's interdisciplinary investigation.

"Anecdotal evidence has built up, and even some biological literature suggests that the swordfish is pugnacious, implying volition," Sanger says. "I wanted to find out if fishermen with face-to-face encounters regard this fish as pugnacious."

Sanger and James Moreira, a folklorist and director of the Maine Folklife Center on campus, interviewed long-time swordfishermen from Nova Scotia who plied the waters off Maine and the Maritimes in the 1930s50s using hand-thrown harpoons and dory retrieval.

Up until the 1960s, before the use of spotter aircraft, radar and longlines, swordfishing in New England and Nova Scotia was largely still done using a harpoon with attached retrieving line (about 100 fathoms or 183 meters) and an empty 10-gallon wooden keg as a float. The harpooner stood on a pulpit projecting over the bow in order to get directly over the fish, aiming for the body below the backbone and between the ribs. Once the swordfish was struck, a dory was dispatched to retrieve the keg and begin reeling in the catch.

Barbed harpoon heads, some with gouged holes for the retrieving line, uncovered in archaeological sites in Maine thousands of years old, clearly resemble technology used by modern swordfish hunters. The earliest evidence of North American harpoon technology came from a 7,500-year-old burial site in Labrador. In the Late Archaic age, lines could have been made from leather or plants. Line holes in the harpoons indicate cordage of small diameter; attached to the line was probably a float, perhaps made of inflated sealskin.

The seven Nova Scotia fishermen interviewed each landed an average of 300 swordfish per season while fishing a total of 80 seasons. Out of the 24,000 swordfish landings they witnessed, they could only cite a dozen encounters in which dories or men were harmed.

"People hunting swordfish 4,000 years ago had to solve some of the same problems swordfishermen have today, including how to land the fish safely," Moreira says. "The behavior of the fish, presumably, has not changed, and once early hunters understood that the fish would not, by nature, attack the pursuing boat, then harpooning swordfish from a canoe or any other small craft would become a viable pursuit."

Very real accounts not just fish tales of swordfish encounters with marine vessels have been documented. In 1931, the Gloucester Times published a photograph of the schooner Mary D'Eon with a swordfish impaled in its wooden bow. In 1967, the research submersible Alvin from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was hit by a swordfish off the east coast of Florida at a depth of 2,000 feet.

Sanger and Moreira came away from their ethnoarchaeological project in Nova Scotia with eyewitness accounts of swordfish behavior that could then be further explored with fish biologists. The swordfishermen talked about the ease in approaching an adult of several hundred pounds basking on the surface, even with a motorized vessel. They verified that, once harpooned, the fish dives deep. If still alive when pulled aside the dory, the fish is killed with a dagger in the gills.

Today, as documented by oceanographers, the Eastern Maine Coastal Current running from Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy south to Penobscot Bay is too cold for swordfish to be hunted regularly with harpoon. Swordfish prefer to bask when sea-surface temperature hovers around 60 degrees F, and where the food supply is high, as on the east side of Georges Bank today.

The fact that so many swordfish occur in archaeological sites beside the Eastern Maine Coastal Current indicates that their normal range extended farther between 5,000 and 3,800 years ago than it does today. This suggests a significant change in the coastal current's sea-surface temperature. Lacking strong paleo-oceanographic data on the Gulf of Maine, scientists speculate that rising sea level, increasing tides and tidal mixing, as well as climatic cooling may have contributed to lower temperatures.

by Margaret Nagle
March-April, 2005

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