Historical excursus on the aquarium hobby, Part 1 – from Palaeolithic period to Ancient Egypt

By Natasha Khardina

The aquarium hobby has actually started as a biotope aquarium – people kept home aquatic inhabitants they collected in the surrounding area, in the way they knew from the original habitat. To better understand the human involvement with the aquarium we need to go deeper and start with the history of the fishkeeping and its transformation into one of the most practiced hobbies on Earth – the aquaristic today is the second largest hobby after the photography counting more than 100 million followers.

Keeping fish for pleasure rather than nourishment has multiple origins. For millennia, humans have caught wild fish in pursuit of food. Many pre-modern societies also practiced aquaculture, managing captive stock in hand-cut ponds and pools. The history of aquaristic, normally recognized as a side branch of pond farming, is dating back to ancient times.

Today no-one can say for sure when people first started to keep fishes in the aquarium – a container with at least one transparent side – to maintain, study and display the aquatic plants or animals, either freshwater or marine, whether for decoration, educational purposes, or breeding.

We do know that fishes carved in stone about 50,000 years ago by the Australian aborigines, who have never possessed a written language, represented a didactic language with an underlying significance. The species can still be identified today. For example, the barramundi Lates calcarifer has reflected the considerable respect for that species and was a tribal, family, or personal totem. Their ‘spirit fish’, the spinner dolphin Stenella longirostris (Stenella longirostris Gray, 1828, belongs actually to animals, Class: Mammalia, and not Teleostei, like fishes), was reserved for the leader kurdaitscha, and an unidentifiable rainbowfish species (family Melanotaeniidae) was used for instruction in religious ceremonies. The Aborigines venerated fishes, which they regarded as very special creatures and worthy of protection, but they did not maintain them in captivity (Bleher 2002, 2003).

Ancient Aboriginal rock art

Already 6000 BC Australian Gunditjmara people that lived in the south-west Victoria were able to build near the Lake Condah and nearby Darlot Creek a network of eel traps, which today are among the earliest surviving examples of aquaculture. The traps were a series of canals and graded ponds, made on a lava flow, running for some 35km around the lake. Gunditjmara people manipulated water levels to encourage eels to swim into holding ponds. These traps and other abundant wildlife provided by the lake allowed the Gunditjmara people to abandon the nomadic lifestyle and remain in one place (Wahlquist 2017).

Australian Gunditjmara people fish traps.

In Europe the oldest representation of a fish was discovered in 1911 in the La Pileta cave in Spain, dating from the latter part of the Palaeolithic period. It was identified as the work of the Cro-Magnon people who lived between 40000 and 20000 BC. We do not know whether it represents some sort of symbolic sacrificial offering or had a magical purpose, to ensure the good fishing. But it certainly wasn’t a pet fish.

La Pileta Palaeolithic fish painting

In the Mesolithic period, 10000-8000 BC, the human species began refining its aesthetic and intellectual appreciation for music, art and luxury items. The aesthetic interest in Nature was part of a broader environmental knowledge that laid the foundation for keeping animals. Humans accumulated knowledge about their natural surroundings over many generations and each social group became increasingly familiar with the local animals, plants, habitats and fishes.

Mesolithic period.

In Mesopotamia the natural sciences were of practical importance and consisted of observing and classifying animals, plants and minerals (Kisling 2000). So the first known fishponds and fish containers, dated from the Sumerian culture more than 4500 years ago, have had not only decorative purposes being architecturally associated with ornamental gardens and temple buildings of the rich society, but had also practical usage in the kitchen gardens of the lower classes. Although it is assumed they did not cultivate the livestock, but used the fishponds as storage facility.

Sumerian fish ponds.

Interestingly, the Sumerian pantheon included the fish-god Oannes, who was believed to have emerged from the Persian Sea back at the dawn of time and instructed mankind in writing, the arts, and the sciences. His head and feet were human, but the body was the one of a fish covered with scales (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2000). To be noticed, round about 3300 BC the Sumerians developed the first known form of the pictogram writing and the fish was one of their pictograms (Földes-Papp 1987); also Sumerian archaic cuneiform script dated back about 2500 BC contained the character that signified ‘fish’ (Kramer 1963).

Sumerian pantheon included the fish-god Oannes.

Interestingly, all Mesopotamian civilizations believed that nothing existed without a name, and that the namer held power over the named, that putting something in writing gave the subject, in the knowledge about it, permanence. The texts were sacred and once established, were used uncritically, stifting original thinking on a given subject.

The Assyrians have inherited Sumerian cuneiform script and ‘fish-letter’ in the ‘alphabet’. They continued as well the tradition to build fishponds, which seems to have been a fairly common feature in larger settlements throughout Mesopotamia. Later in their history they too worshipped a fish-god, Dagon, whose lower body was that of a fish (Wikipedia 2019).

Sumerian cuneiform script and ‘fish-letter’ in the ‘alphabet’.

According to Kisling’s publication Zoo and Aquarium History, in the I Assyrian period about 2500 BC appear first veterinarians known as ‘ox and ass doctors’. The development of the knowledge from practical observations of animals and plants had begun, but it consisted of being aware of their occurrence, properties and habits, but not necessarily the understanding. There is the indirect evidence of the fact that even though the Assyrians kept fish, stil they apparently had no naturalistic interest in these creatures as their drawings are stereotyped. The fish paintings are so poorly drawn that is impossible to be certain to which taxonomic group they belong.

Nevertheless, it was beginning of the environment being controlled and understood, as by ca. 2500 BC the natural world around Mesopotamia was categorised into domestic animals, wild animals, wild birds, fishes, insects, plants, trees, vegetables, and minerals. All animals and plans were well organized in groupings that laid the basis to the first rudimentary classification schemes (Kisling 2000).

The aquaculture in ancient Egypt has its origin in religion. The Egyptians are known to have venerated the tilapia Oreochromis niloticus for its fertility. Although it is unlikely that the ancient Egyptians were fully aware of all the particular tilapia traits, without doubt the species of Egyptian tilapia was known for its unusual parental care behaviour rearing its young and discharging it’s hatchlings from it’s mouth. Egyptian amulets highlight the perceived protective value of this fish, especially to mothers and children as a reflection of its careful parenting. Tilapia represented a symbol of self-creation due to the autogenesis associated by extention with the creator god Atum who took his seed into his mouth and spat out the world (Brewer, Friedman 1989). Some of Egyptian temple complexes along the Nile contain marble ponds for tilapias. Fish images are not unusual in Ancient Egyptian paintings so tilapia was also often portrayed in funerary wall paintings, among approximately 23 fish forms that have been identified (Hunt 2012).

Egyptian tilapia.

Another fish, the Nile perch Lates niloticus, was worshipped as a divinity sacred to the goddess Neith. Thousands of mummified specimens have been found in the cemetery of Latopolis, named in honor of this fish.

Greek historians have recorded certain dietary customs of the Egyptians: fish was usually served with fins removed; on the ninth day of the month of the Thoth the Egyptians ate fish, doubtless from their fish ponds, at the doors of their houses; the priests offered their helpings to the gods by burning them. Certain fish species were taboo for the high priests (Schoske, Wildung 1992).

In this historical period appears the first evidence that fish were first being kept for recreational purposes: tomb paintings show the young Egyptians fishing in ponds with a rod and line. This form of angling must have been for sport as there were more efficient ways of catching for food that has already been developed (Banister 1977).

Egyptian gardens and ponds.

Kisling (2000) wrote: “Egyptians took special delights in displaying wild birds from the marshes, birds of prey, and imported exotic species. Fishponds and beehives were also maintained, and often used to complement gardens. Pools became microhabitats containing fish, birds, papyrus, lotus, and other aquatic plants. Grander houses and palaces had rooms opening onto gardens in such a way that painted gardens on the walls and floor blended with the real garden just outside the rooms. Paintings of plants, birds and marsh life together with the live birds in cages, blurred the boundary between house and garden as the garden was entered from these rooms.”

To be continued…

Bibliography:

Banister Keith E., Aquarial Fish, New York, Crescent Books 1977.

Banister Keith E., Campbell Andrew C., The Encyclopaedia of Aquatic Life, New York, Checkmark Books 1985.

Bleher Heiko, Aquarium History, in “NUTRAFIN Aquatic News”, Vol. 3 (2003).

Hunt Patrick, Ancient Egyptian Tilapia Fish Story, in “Electrum Magazine” September 29, 2012

Kisling Vernon N., Zoo and Aquarium History: Ancient Animal Collections To Zoological Gardens, New York, CRC Press 2000.

Kramer Samuel Noah, The Sumerians. Their Hystory, Culture and Character, London, The University of Chicago Press 1963.

Schoske Sylvia, Wildung Dietrich, Gott und Götter im Alten Ägypten, Darmstadt, Verlag Philipp von Zagern 1992.

Wahlquist Calla, Indigenous owners hope ancient eel traps will be recognised as world heritage, in “The Guardian” 2017.