Shark Culture: How Do We Connect with Sharks?

We may look at sharks as dangerous and alien, but it wasn't always that way. Many ancient cultures embraced them and they all studied them.

We may look at sharks as dangerous and alien, but it wasn't always that way. Many ancient cultures embraced them and they all studied them.

This is an excerpt from "Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks," by Juliet Eilperin. As national environment reporter for The Washington Post, Eilperin's assignments have taken her across the Arctic tundra and into Tennessee caves in search of rare insects, but she's happiest underwater. In "Demon Fish," she provides a global look at the often surprising and inexplicable ways people and cultures relate to, and engage with, the ocean's top predator Get more information on her book and reporting here.

In our current era, when sharks are viewed as "the other," it's important to recognize that during earlier periods of human civilization, they were seen as more intimately connected to us. While some communities simply viewed them as a part of the natural world to be observed, several coastal societies saw them as either playing a critical role in their creation or serving as ongoing arbiters of human activities and disputes. One of the remarkable aspects of shark calling in Papua New Guinea is that it has preserved this sort of worldview to this day, where other traditions have collapsed. But in the overall context of human history, Karasimbe and his cohorts are not unique.

From the earliest moments in which humans developed language, art, and other forms of communication, they began to chronicle the presence of sharks in their surroundings. Phoenician pottery dating back to 3000 b.c. displays images of sharks, while a vase from 725 b.c., discovered at Ischia, Italy, shows a fish resembling a shark attacking a man. The ancient Greeks wrote and painted images of Ketea, a sharklike creature that the Greek poet Oppian described as a species that "rave for food with unceasing frenzy, being always hungered and never abating the gluttony of their terrible maw, for what food shall be sufficient to fill the void of their belly or enough to satisfy and give a respite to their insatiable jaws?" A few hundred years later, the Roman writer Pliny the Elder made his own lasting contribution to the popular scientific conception of sharks when he described their attacks on pearl divers and named them, as a group, "dogfish." This term -- a classic example of how humans defined sharks in relation to themselves -- started as a generic label for sharks and persisted that way in Europe and America for hundreds of years. For centuries fishermen have cursed dogfish, seeing them as worthless: the July 26, 1864, log entry from the ship Rozella, sailing in Broken Ground on Frenchman Bay in the Gulf of Maine, reports, "Dogfish plags us much." Now, however, dogfish refers to a specific set of species.

While most ancient thinkers provided anthropocentric accounts of sharks, Greeks such as Aristotle also studied the animals, and their close relations, for themselves. Aristotle dubbed them, collectively, selache, a name that still defines these animals more than two thousand years later. In one of his most vivid accounts of shark behavior, Aristotle described their mating rites: the cartilaginous fishes in copulation "hang together after the fashion of dogs, ... the long-tailed ones mounting the others, unless the latter have a thick tail preventing this, when they come together belly to belly."

The Islamic world offered its seminal account of sharks in 1270, when the Iraqi judge Zakariya Qazwini compiled an illustrated compendium titled "The Wonders of Creation and the Oddities of Existence." The book, which was popular reading for hundreds of years, described how some residents lived in fear of the freshwater sharks that swam in the Tigris River. Matthew McDavitt, who practices law for a living in Charlottesville, Virginia, but spends much of his free time documenting how ancient cultures viewed sharks and other elasmobranchs, commissioned a translation of the book's folio 71v, its section on the Persian Sea:

"This is a great evil in the sea. It is like the crocodiles in the Nile River. Also it comes at a specific time mainly into the Tigris River. Some (other fish that ascend the Tigris River) are well-known: Al-Arabian, Al-Dahi, Al-Adaq, Al-Barak, and Al-Kubrij, all different species of fish. Each type comes at certain times, known to the people of Basra. One of them is known as Al-Tin (literally, "the dragon"; also known as Tinin). It is worse than Al-Kusaj (shark). It has teeth like spearheads. It is as long as a palm-tree. Its eyes are like fires of blood. It has an ugly shape; all other species run away from it."

While these early scientific accounts by Greeks, Romans, and Iraqis detail the real-world interactions between sharks and other species, many ancient island and coastal cultures elsewhere focused on sharks' more mythical aspects. They constructed elaborate and abstract belief systems in which the animals represented different core values: sharks and rays symbolized law and justice to tribes and clans in Australia, Papua New Guinea, and central Africa, while they embodied aquatic fertility and warfare in the Yucatán. These stories portrayed sharks with greater complexity and helped explain the world in which these people lived. While aboriginal Australians developed very different beliefs about sharks compared with the Mayans, native Hawaiians, and men and women living on the Niger Delta, all of these societies saw their lives as intimately connected to sharks and their close relatives rays.

From the book DEMON FISH by Juliet Eilperin ©2011 Juliet Eilperin Reprinted with the permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

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