Samples of the Story
Note: Text extracts are from un-copyedited manuscript and may differ slightly from the printed version.
Preface and Author’s Note
1. Bountiful Waters
PART I: OPPORTUNISTIC FISHERS
3. Neanderthals and Moderns
4. Shellfish Eaters
5. Baltic and Danube After the Ice
6. Rope-patterned Fisherfolk
7. The Great Journey Revisited
8. Fishers on the Pacific Northwest Coast
9. The Myth of a Garden of Eden
10. The Calusa:Shallows and Sea Grass
11. The Great Fish Have Come In
PART II: FISHERS IN THE SHADOWS
12. Rations for Pharaohs
13. Fishing the Middle Sea
14. Scaly Flocks
15. The Fish Eaters
16.The Erythraean Sea
17. Carp and Khmer
18. Anchovies and Civilization
PART III: THE END OF PLENTY
19. Ants of the Ocean
20. The Beef of the Sea
21. “Inexhaustible Manna”
23. More in the Sea?
From Chapter 5: Sturgeon along the Danube
Baltic societies exploited a broad range of fish from lakes, rivers, and the sea, but nothing caught there rivaled the giant sturgeon of the Danube River’s Iron Gates, a 230-kilometer series of gorges between the Carpathian and Balkan Mountains where the water once flowed at speeds of up to 18 kilometers an hour. (The Iron Gates have been affected by hydroelectric dams since the 1970s.) In the most confined of these gorges, the Great Kazan, the river became just 150 meters wide and reached a depth of 53 meters. With their dynamic water level changes, fast currents, and varied depths, the Iron Gates were rich in nutrients, aquatic plants, insects, and invertebrates that sustained large and diverse fish populations. The king among them was the sturgeon.
European sturgeon are members of the genus Acipenser, large, long-lived fish that are olive-black with a white belly. Swimming near the river bottoms with their four barbels dragging the murky substrate, sturgeon are unusual both for their size and for their bony plated armor, or scutes. They spawn in fresh water and then mature in the ocean, preferring estuaries and their muddy bottoms. Once adult, they return to fresh water to spawn.
In the Black Sea, sturgeon enter rivers like the Danube between January and October, the peak migration occurring during high water in April and May. A second, smaller migration downstream peaks in October. Five sturgeon species occur in the Danube. Huso huso, the Beluga sturgeon famous for its caviar, can live as long as 118 years and weigh as much as 250 kilograms, reaching a length of up to 6 meters. Truly enormous fish of more than 1,500 kilograms and 7 meters appear in nineteenth century records. Huso huso lays eggs in holes in the riverbed along only two stretches of the Danube: the last few kilometers before the river drains into the Black Sea, and far upstream in the Iron Gates. This is where Gates people lived. They were serious fishers. Stable isotope samples from human skeletons at two sites—Vlasac and Schela Cladovei—show that between 60 and 85 percent of their diet came from aquatic sources.
Lepenski Vir, on the river’s Serbian bank, was the largest settlement. Four or five families lived there as early as 9500 BC, on a narrow terrace backed by cliffs and facing the Danube.(9) By 6300 BC, several centuries after the climate stabilized and the river slowed, the first settlement had become a substantial village with two wings of dwellings and a central open space, linked to about ten satellite settlements, including Padina and Vlasac. Over time, at least seven versions of Lepenski Vir rose on the same site, the later ones with trapezoid dwellings. Each had a plaster floor and a large central fireplace constructed of stone blocks. A small shrine of sculptures carved from river boulders lay against the rear wall. Everything faced the river, which was the focus of daily life and of the community’s elaborate religious beliefs. Its symbolism revolved around the sturgeon.
Life at Lepenski Vir focused on the coming and going of the great fish. Sturgeon could swim against the most powerful currents, an ability that may have cast them as influential guardians of those who preyed upon them. One of the stone statues at Lepenski Vir has a crest of dermal scutes carved along its back. Other statues have bulging eyes and frightening facial features that do not recall sturgeon but which may have been representations of mythic ancestors or of fish gods that were thought to ward off evil. The British archaeologist Clive Bonsall has argued that the Lepenski Vir statues were protectors against unpredictable, sometimes catastrophic floods.
The first fishing camps along the river may have stemmed from the usual restless opportunism that defines all hunting societies, but the opportunism eventually gave way to what we might call a piscatorial and spiritual obsession. This is hardly surprising, for a large sturgeon swimming in shallow water is a spectacularly awesome sight. At migration time, the gorges would have been packed with them. Catching sturgeon in the Iron Gates was river fishing at its most strenuous and dangerous: even a glancing blow from a large sturgeon’s tail could be fatal.
The technology to catch fish was still rudimentary, so what really worked was the peoples’ intimate knowledge of fish behavior. Close to the banks at Lepenski Vir, the water was shallow, but starting just 10 meters from the bank it descends into deep gullies about 30 meters deep. Here, large whirlpools diverted the migrating fish away from the rapids and into the shallows, where the fishers waited for them. Judging from traditional nineteenth century practice, the fishermen would have used dams, V-shaped traps, and also stout nets weighted with grooved stone weights to corral the sturgeon, and then clubbed them to death. The sites where sturgeon bones abound have yielded numerous heavy stone clubs or mallets, most of which show signs of wear at one end, as if they were used to pound fish on the head.
Most Danube fish spawned during spring and early summer. Along with sturgeon bones, the archaeological sites along the gorges yielded considerable numbers of large catfish, wild carp, and pike, as well as a broad range of smaller fish.
As was true everywhere, droughts and variations in flood rates would affect spawns unpredictably, but it appears that the Iron Gates fisheries were so rich and varied that there was never a compelling reason to leave the gorges. Sturgeon predominates at Lepenski Vir, catfish at the satellite settlement of Padina, and carp at Vlasac. Perhaps each settlement specialized in a different quarry—this may in fact be the reason for the satellite settlements.
By 6000 BC, Lepenski Vir was no more. Farmers lived in the open areas near the Iron Gates, and thousands of years of isolation were at an end. One telling sign that local fishing communities had become part of a wider cultural universe comes from the bone chemistry of three people among the many buried at Lepenski Vir. They had consumed much more terrestrial protein than others buried around the same time, as if they had spent much of their lives among farmers. We do not know if they were male or female. Had they married into the group, or did they just work among the farmers for some time? Still, the ancient tradition of sturgeon fishing continued on an ever-larger scale, using methods little changed from the remote past. As recently as the twentieth century, Iron Gorge fishers would set traps and nets at rapids or whirlpools. Men in boats would then pull in the nets, stunning the catch with strong blows to the head delivered with massive wooden clubs. They would catch large sturgeon swimming upstream in spring and downstream in autumn. The trapping and killing may have reached frenzied heights, just like the fierce tuna killings in the Mediterranean.
In later times, as we know from medieval archives in Hungary, yields became enormous. In 1518, following ancient tradition, the city of Komárum in northern Hungary acquired the rank of Royal Sturgeon Fishing Grounds. By that time it required large shipments of oak logs and the labor of entire villages of serfs working under a magister clausurae to maintain the sturgeon weirs. Only well-organized estates could afford them.
Seventy-seven sturgeon were caught in one day in 1553. Two centuries later, along just one 55-kilometer stretch of the Danube, the annual catch was 27 tons. In 1890, records state, “50-100 sturgeons were caught and butchered daily” on an island just downstream from Orsova at the upper end of the Iron Gates. The wooden weirs eventually gave way to stout nets made of hemp, and vertical gillnets that caught the fishes’ pectoral fins. Fishers also used sharp hooks strung on a line stretched from bank to bank across smaller rivers. No bait was needed. The sturgeon, fascinated by the shiny hooks, were caught by their curiosity.
By the twentieth century, sturgeon sizes were shrinking because of overfishing. Add pollution and the two Iron Gates dams, which restricted the fishes’ access to spawning grounds, and the recipe for extinction is in place. There are efforts to release young sturgeon in the wild in the hope that they will spawn, but the millennia-old tradition of sturgeon fishing is most likely gone forever.