Skeletal remains and artistic representations are the main sources employed to trace the history and development of fish use in ancient Egypt. Knowledge of fish and fishing during Egypt's prehistoric period is based primarily on inferences drawn from skeletal remains, while artistic representations from tombs and temples provide the most information for the dynastic period. Certain caveats, however, apply to both types of information; problems of unequal preservation hamper skeletal studies, and rarely is the main focus of the reliefs to record the use of fish in daily life.

Skeletal Evidence: The Prehistoric Period.

The earliest evidence of a strong reliance on fish in Egypt comes from sites identified with the Khormusan, a Paleolithic, industry (c.45,000 BCE). Khormusans hunted the wild aurochs (Bos primigenius) and other animals found along the Nile or on its alluvial plain, but they appear to have focused much energy on the exploitation of fish, in particular the large Nile catfish (Clarias spp.). The Nile catfish was also an important resource in later Paleolithic sites.

In the Wadi Kubanniya, settlements dating to c.16,000–10,500 BCE appear to have shifted seasonally to take advantage of fish resources. With the late summer flood, fish were brought into shallow pools that formed between the dunes at the edge of the alluvial plain, where they became trapped as the flood receded. Inhabitants of the region apparently moved their camps to the summits of the dunes in order to gather these fish.

Further insight concerning the role of fish in prehistoric Egypt comes from research at Lake Qarun in the Faiyum. Faunal remains provide evidence that Qarunian (epi-Paleolithic) and Faiyum Neolithic groups utilized a number of terrestrial animals but relied most heavily on the lake's fish. In fact, fish account for 74 percent of the Paleolithic faunal assemblage and 71 percent of the Neolithic. The Nile catfish, the most predominant animal recovered, accounts for 66 percent of all skeletal remains. Seasonality studies of the Nile catfish remains demonstrate that both Qarunian and Neolithic groups took fish at least twice during the year: in late spring/early summer and in late summer/early fall.

Although the shallow-water clariids (Clarias spp.) are the predominant type of fish recovered from Faiyum sites, increasingly greater numbers of deep-water fish species are found in later Neolithic sites, suggesting an increasingly more proficient deep-water fishing technology. This trend is particularly apparent with respect to Nile perch (Lates niloticus), which prefer deep, well-oxygenated waters.

The strong reliance of the Qarunians on fish also affected other aspects of their material culture. The uniqueness of Qarunian lithic artifacts, for example, has been linked to their use in fish processing, and the continued exploitation of fish in the Neolithic period may have been one reason for the relatively unimportant role of cattle, in contrast to other contemporary sites in Egypt.

In the Nile Delta, the site of Merimde has produced the most taxonomically diverse faunal assemblage recorded from Lower Egypt: twenty separate fish species have been recovered. Catfish (Clarias, Synodontis, and Malapterurus) are predominant. Evidence compiled from a number of sites in the Nile Valley suggests a developing pattern: with increasing sedentarism came an increasing reliance on fish.

Tombs, Temples, and Texts: The Dynastic Period.

Egyptians were keen observers of nature. This is reflected in the precise depiction of fish in tomb and temple scenes, and also in the symbolic or magical powers attributed to certain fish by virtue of their observed biological behavior. For example, mullets, having traveled from the Mediterranean Sea to the First Cataract, were honored at Elephantine as heralds of the flood and as messengers of the flood god Hapy.

The mouth-brooding habits of certain species of the genus Tilapia were also observed and associated with creation by the creator god Atum, who took his seed into his mouth and spat out the world. This autogenesis was associated with fertility and rebirth in the next life, and the Tilapia in this connection becomes a favored motif in New Kingdom tomb paintings, amulets, and other minor arts, such as faience bowls decorated on the interior with Tilapia with a lotus bud issuing from the mouth, symbolic of new beginnings. (Following the more popular synonymy, the genus Oreochromis is here included within Tilapia spp.). The brilliant breeding colors of the Tilapia led

Fish

Fish. Depiction on a Theban wall painting. (Courtesy Dieter Arnold)

to its association with the sun. Called the “red fish,” it was believed to accompany the solar boat as a guardian on its journey through the night; eventually, the Tilapia was viewed as a form of the god Horus, who kills the enemies of the sun.

Table 1. Piscine Taxa Recovered from Prehistoric Sites in Egypt



Taxon
Site Date (BCE) 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
Idfu and Isna
 E71P101 x
 E71P1-2 (15,850 ± 330) x
 E71P1-3 (15,000 ± 300) x x
 E71P1-6 x x x
 E71P2-T2 x
 E71K4-T4 (10,740 ± 240) x
 E71K1 (16,070 ± 330) x x x
 E71K3 (15,640 ± 300) x x x
71K9-A x
71K9-C x
71P7-A x
71P7-B x
 E71K18-A x
 E71K18-B x
 E71K18-C x
 E71K18-D x
 E71K18-E x
 E71K5 x
Wadi Kubannyia
 E78-2 x x x x
 E78-3 x x x
 E78-4 x x x x
 E78-9 x
 E81-1 x x x x
 E81-3 x x
 E81-4 x x x x
 E82-3 x x x x x
Faiyum
paleolithic
 S-2 x x x x x x x x
neolithic
 S-1 (3910 ± 115) x x x x x x
 S-3 x x x x
 S-4 x x x x x x
 S-5 (FS-1) x x x x x x x x
Merimde (+) (4311 ± 50)
x x x x x x x x x x x
Hierakonpolis
 HK29A x x x x x x x
*: x = presence of taxa 1 = Labeo, 2 = Barbus, 3 = Bagrus, 4 = Chrysichthys, 5 = Clariids, 6 = Synodontis, 7 = Lates, 8 = Tilapia, 9 = Tetraodon, 10 = Anguilla, 11 = Mormyridae + = Polypterus, Hydrocynus, Alestes, Citharinus/Distichodus, Auchenoglanis, Eutropius, Schilbe, Malapterurus, Mugil † = estimated date

The Nile catfish, which favors muddy waters, was believed to guide the solar boat through the dark river of the underworld at night. Catfish-headed demons are depicted in New Kingdom royal tombs and numerous sarcophagi assisting the god Aker to haul the solar disk on its nocturnal course. Catfish whiskers also reminded the Egyptians of the cat; according to Classical sources, the catfish became a holy manifestation of the cat-headed goddess Bastet.

The Egyptians were also aware of the peculiar habit of Synodontis batensoda, which swims upside down, a characteristic depicted on several tomb scenes. In the Middle Kingdom, Synodontis-shaped ornaments, often made of precious metal, were popular. These were worn, usually by women, in the hair or as necklaces, possibly as a charm to protect the wearer from drowning.

As the annual Nile flood retreated, the abundance of fish caught in low-lying basins no doubt led to a connection of fish with fertility—particularly those fish that preferred to live and breed in shallow waters (i.e., Tilapia and Clarias). At the same time, an association with the chaotic flood prior to the creation of the world (couched in the imagery of the flood receding and creation emerging) also placed fish in a sphere of chaos that needed to be controlled.

In the Late period, the association of fish with certain gods and goddesses in local myths is connected to the general practice of venerating animals as manifestations of deities. For example, the goddess of Mendes province, Hatmehit, took the form of a Schilbe; and at Esna, the Nile perch (Lates) was associated with the goddess Neith, who at one point turned herself into a Nile perch to navigate the deep waters of the primeval ocean Nun. In her honor, mummified perch were offered as a token of worship.

To what extent the religious view of fish influenced their use remains unclear, but the beliefs attested in one period and place may not be valid in another. Later temple inscriptions corroborate the existence of local injunctions and provide lists of what was taboo in the different provinces of Egypt. These lists mention six fish: Lates, Tilapia, catfish, Mugils, Tetraodon fahaka, and one still unidentified fish, which may be the eel Anguilla vulgaris. In some places it was forbidden to eat any fish. Classical authors also provide information about fish considered holy or forbidden in local areas, such as the phagrus (Hydrocynus), oxyrhynchus (Mormyrus spp.), and lepidotus (Barbus bynni), which were participants in the Osiris myth. It was forbidden even to catch them in nets or by hook in the Oxyrhynchus district, but they were apparently fair game in neighboring areas.

Bibliography

  • Brewer, Douglas J. “Seasonality in the Prehistoric Faiyum Based on the Incremental Growth Structures of the Nile Catfish (Pisces: Clarias).” Journal of Archaeological Science 14 (1987), 459–472.
  • Brewer, Douglas J. Fishermen, Hunters and Herders. British Archaeological Reports, International Series, 478. London, 1989.
  • Brewer, Douglas J., and Renée F. Freidman. Fish and Fishing in Ancient Egypt. Warminster, 1989. Serves the interests of lay persons and nonspecialist scholars.
  • von den Driesch, Angela. Tierknochenfunde aus Qasr el Sagha/Fayum. Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 42 (1986), 1–8.
  • von den Driesch, Angel N, and J. Boessneck. Die Tierknochenfunde aus der Neolithischen Siedlung von Merimde-Benisalâma am westlichen Nildelta. Cairo, 1985.
  • Wendorf, Fred, and Romald Schild. The Prehistory of the Nile Valley. New York, 1976.
  • Wendorf, Fred, and Romald Schild. Loaves and Fishes: The Prehistory of Wadi Kubbaniya. Dallas, 1980.
  • Wenke, Robert, Janet Long, and Paul Buck. “Epipaleolithic and Neolithic Subsistence and Settlement in the Fayyum Oasis of Egypt.” Journal of Field Archaeology 15 (1988), 29–51.

Douglas J. Brewer