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California fish find

Like a pin(bone) in a haystack, archaeologist finds Atlantic cod in chaos of Thompson Cove, San Francisco.

Gadus morhua, the Atlantic cod, has been a European staple ever since medieval times. Just five years after Sebastian Cabot returned from Newfoundland with tales of cod teeming around his ships, a Bristol merchant named Hugh Elyot, landed a cargo of salted Gadus from American shores. For this, he received the then-colossal sum of £180. News of the rich fishery spread rapidly at a time when the devout ate fish on meatless Fridays. The profits were enormous.

The North Atlantic cod trade proved to be more valuable than all the gold from the Americas, the fish described by a French explorer of 1744 as ‘a kind of inexhaustible manna.’ Salted cod was easily caught, readily processed, and kept for a long time ­– an ideal trading commodity, so much so that Atlantic fish stocks were showing sign of exhaustion by the 1850s. By that time, salted Atlantic cod were an international commodity, as far away as Thompson Cove in San Francisco Bay.

Pacific cod were, of course, regularly taken off California, but Brittany Bingham of the University of Kansas wondered if Atlantic examples were consumed in the Bay area. She therefore performed genetic testing on 18 cod bones from Thompson Cove, five of which proved to be Atlantic cod. Newspapers from the Gold Rush reported that fish and seafood were imported to San Francisco, to feed a rapidly growing population.

Thompson Cove was a chaotic place, crowded with shacks and piled with crates and boxes. People handled hide and tallow, hunted ducks and geese, in what was a muddy, crowded community. Disentangling the cod bones involved sorting through a mass of small finds, making the discovery of the 18 cod bones a remarkable achievement. Who bought and ate the Atlantic cod is a mystery, but we do know that salted cod was an important part of maritime diet at the time. It was light and remained edible for a long time, obvious advantages when at sea.

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