Of Fish and Men…Studying Fossil Fish in Ethiopia

It will come as no surprise that this museum knows its fish. With experts like Brian Coad and Noel Alfonso, and world-class collections, ichthyology is alive and well here. For some of us, however, acquiring a deeper knowledge of our water-dwelling friends is a newer pursuit.

Which is how I find myself writing this blog post in Addis Ababa following a week of research at the National Museum of Ethiopia. I am in East Africa studying 3 to 4 million-year-old fish from sites associated with some of the earliest human ancestors.

The main grounds of the National Museum of Ethiopia in the country’s capital of Addis Ababa.

The main grounds of the National Museum of Ethiopia in the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. The yellow building to the left marks the entrance to the main research and collections building where all of our work was conducted. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

A mosaic above the main entrance to Ethiopia’s National Museum.

Above the main entrance to Ethiopia’s National Museum is a beautiful mosaic depicting objects that reflect the nation’s heritage, including the bones of Lucy (as seen in the centre). Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

As a specialist in zooarchaeology, I am interested in understanding how people interacted with animals in the past. I analyze the bones found on archaeological sites for clues about the nature of the human-animal relationship. In prior blogs, I have mentioned my work in Syria and my hope to see zooarchaeological research return to the Canadian Museum of Nature.

In Syria, I explored the ways in which the management of animal-derived resources—meat, milk wool—evolved from the fifth to the third millennia BC. This span of time includes the emergence of the world’s first urban centres. An increasingly complex economy focussed around animal-based goods was one of several factors that contributed to the rise and success of cities.

Most of the animal bones that I identified in Syria belonged to mammals, though, so how do fish come into the picture? Well, with the current political situation in Syria, it is no longer possible to conduct fieldwork there, so I needed to find another line of research.

Scott Rufolo seated at a table, examining fish fossils.

The National Museum of Ethiopia completed construction of a new storage and research facility in 2010. Here I am in one of the study rooms working with the fish fossils. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

In stepped Kathlyn Stewart, head of the museum’s Palaeobiology Section and an expert in fossil fish. She presented an opportunity I could not pass up: joining her on a fossil fish project in East Africa. So, after several months of preparation learning more about the skeleton structure and evolutionary history of fish, I am now in Ethiopia.

Working in collaboration with Alison Murray of the University of Alberta, I examined the fossils of catfish and minnows recovered from several sites located in the basin of the Awash River in eastern Ethiopia. We processed over 700 specimens, and we believe we have even identified one – perhaps two – new species. And while this is not a proper zooarchaeological project, it does have a particular relevance to the human dimension.

Piles of fish fossils on a table.

Many of the fish fossils are small fragments that require sorting. Here you see the contents of a large bag of fragmentary remains partially sorted into piles of identifiable and unidentifiable material. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

These fossil fish once shared the landscape with early hominids, the primate family to which belong the famous Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) and all her relatives, including us modern humans. The fish fossils reveal much about the past waterways and environment, providing more detail about the world in which our ancestors lived.

(left) Display of the skeletal remains of Lucy. (right) The jawbone and partial skull of Lucy.

(left) Display at the National Museum of Ethiopia of the skeletal remains of Lucy, a 3.2 million-year-old member of the early hominid species Australopithecus afarensis. Long considered to be ancestral to the modern human lineage, A. afarensis roamed what is now Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania between 3.6 and 3.0 million years ago. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

In a sense, then, I have moved on to looking at the beginnings of the human relationship with fish. From neighbours in the wild to the complex set of interactions today (fish as pets, food, focus of recreational activity, etc.), we humans have a long history with the finned animals that inhabit the Earth’s waters.

Early hominids certainly encountered fish over the course of their lives, and it probably wasn’t long before fish became regarded as a food resource—or was it?

A display case with partial skull of an early hominid.

Lucy, discovered in 1972 at Hadar in the Afar region of Ethiopia, is by no means the sole fossil representative of her species. Seen in the centre of this display case is a replica of the partial skull of Selam, often called the “first child.” Discovered south of Hadar at the site of Dikika in 2000, Selam died at the age of three, and her remains are still under study. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Exactly when our ancestors began regularly eating fish is a debated topic, and one I will discuss in my next blog entry. I’m off to Kenya next to look at some additional fish fossils there, so more soon from Nairobi!

The fin spine of a fossil catfish.

The fish remains may often be small, but they can certainly be distinctive. This is the pectoral fin spine from Clarias, a genus of catfish commonly found in the East African fossil record. You can see the articular surface to the left, where the spine attached to the body, as well as the sharp serrations that adorn the outer surface. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

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One Response to Of Fish and Men…Studying Fossil Fish in Ethiopia

  1. Pingback: Food for Thought: Fish Fossils and Evolution of the Human Brain | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

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