User login

Present-day African analogue of a pre-European Amazonian floodplain fishery shows convergence in cultural niche construction

TitlePresent-day African analogue of a pre-European Amazonian floodplain fishery shows convergence in cultural niche construction
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2016
AuthorsMcKey, DB, Durécu, M, Pouilly, M, Bearez, P, Ovando, A, Kalebe, M, Huchzermeyer, CF
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Erickson [Erickson CL (2000) Nature 408 (6809):190–193] interpreted features in seasonal floodplains in Bolivia’s Beni savannas as vestiges of pre-European earthen fish weirs, postulating that they supported a productive, sustainable fishery that warranted cooperation in the construction and maintenance of perennial structures. His inferences were bold, because no close ethnographic analogues were known. A similar present-day Zambian fishery, documented here, appears strikingly convergent. The Zambian fishery supports Erickson’s key inferences about the pre-European fishery: It allows sustained high harvest levels; weir construction and operation require cooperation; and weirs are inherited across generations. However, our comparison suggests that the pre-European system may not have entailed intensive management, as Erickson postulated. The Zambian fishery’s sustainability is based on exploiting an assemblage dominated by species with life histories combining high fecundity, multiple reproductive cycles, and seasonal use of floodplains. As water rises, adults migrate from permanent watercourses into floodplains, through gaps in weirs, to feed and spawn. Juveniles grow and then migrate back to dry-season refuges as water falls. At that moment fishermen set traps in the gaps, harvesting large numbers of fish, mostly juveniles. In nature, most juveniles die during the first dry season, so that their harvest just before migration has limited impact on future populations, facilitating sustainability and the adoption of a fishery based on inherited perennial structures. South American floodplain fishes with similar life histories were the likely targets of the pre-European fishery. Convergence in floodplain fish strategies in these two regions in turn drove convergence in cultural niche construction.