Review: The Swordfish Hunters

Bruce Borque, Author of The Swordfish Hunters: The History and Ecology of an Ancient American Sea People.

News in April 2013 that federal fishery managers might revise rules that would allow New England fishermen to sell swordfish caught via harpoon and rod-and-reel gear stirred excitement among small-boat operators and kindled memories of nearshore swordfishing in the region.

Swordfish rostrum foreshafts from Maine coastal excavation sites. These are believed to have been mounted on the end of long wooden harpoon shafts and used for hunting swordfish.

Before overfishing and subsequent strict regulation of the Northeast swordfishery in the ‘70s and ‘80s, small-boat harpoon fishermen would often pursue these magnificent fish—some weighing hundreds of pounds—within a few miles of shore.

New England fishermen have been hunting swordfish with harpoons since the mid-1800s, but few people realize that the technique had actually been practiced off Maine much earlier than that. How much earlier? Try 4,000 years!

In The Swordfish Hunters: The History and Ecology of an Ancient American Sea People, archaeologist Bruce Borque presents evidence that hunter-gatherers of the Moorehead phase, living in small clusters on Midcoast Maine, caught swordfish with the aid of stone-tipped harpoons, fishing most likely from dugout canoes. Also known as the Red Paint People because of their use of red ochre in burial sites (itself an unusual and mysterious custom in the Northeast), these people also caught huge codfish and other marine species.

Fishhooks of the Red Paint People

Borque, a professor of archaeology who has been studying ancient North American culture since the ‘60s, serves up a wealth of material, including exquisitely crafted harpoon heads and swordfish skeletons, that prove humans were pursuing broadbills and other cold-water fish off our shores long before the arrival of European settlers. He also proposes that a distinct and localized population of “inshore” swordfish might have existed in the Gulf of Maine shortly after the last ice age, providing the Red Paint People with access to these large fish.

Stone plummets, or sinkers for fishing

But the ancient fishery, and the Moorehead phase in general, was short-lived, lasting only a few hundred years before the Red Paint People vanished, possibly pushed out of their territory by advancing groups from the south or a reduction in their marine food supply, perhaps due to overfishing.

While Borque’s writing can be a bit dry and arcane at times, the book is nonetheless fascinating. It is accompanied by numerous color plates showing many of the bayonets, harpoon heads, fishhooks, plummets (sinkers), and other artifacts associated with the Red Paint culture. And for readers enthralled by the interaction between humans and what many fishermen refer to as the ultimate game fish, it’s nothing short of magical.

$29.95 (hardcover)
Bunker Hill Publishing

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