Article Old Babbling Carp - Part 1


Searching for Christmas presents for my husband early this year, I came across a book “The complete illustrated guide to Koi” by Herbert R. Axelrod with research papers from E.K. Balon, an ichthyologist, and Richard C. Hoffmann, historian of York University. Although I don’t fish myself, I was hooked by the rich history of carp and the economical and environmental impact, all over Europe, of the fish so many of us have come to love and respect. After 3 months of research I found numerous interesting books and papers about carp history. I realized that I had enough material to write a series of articles. This one will deal with classical and early medieval times, the second with late medieval times, the third with the 17th to 18th centuries, ending with a fourth article covering the 19th century and the introduction of carp in the US. Now let’s pretend for a minute I’m an old carp…




I am in a nice spot, full of weeds, with not too much current and I can observe the young ones searching lazily for food. The water temperature is fresh but not too cold (I hate it, it makes me feel lethargic), I’m old and huge now and I prefer to wait and suck up the scraps the impatient ones left for me. The memories from my past seem to float around me like the crayfish I love so much. Not unlike my human counterparts, I often wonder “Who am I? Where do I come from? Who are my ancestors?”







I have quite a lot of free time on my fins now; I am too clever to be caught even by the “craftiest” of my human Arch Nemesis; so quite some time ago I began my own research. We are not lucky enough to have tools like so although I used the Internet, I had to do it the old fashioned way and read stacks of waterproof books and research papers! During the long winter months, the young ones love to listen to my babbling about what it was like to live in the old country in the old times…






Although a few of my lucky ancestors or numerous cousins received poetic names like Big Banana or Pearl, most of us simply go by Carp. So the only way for me to learn something about me was to trace ichthyologic, literary and archeological sources. Because we carp were introduced into the US from German fishponds during the 19th century, I assumed that I had to begin my search in Western Europe


New Ichthyology studies (2003) from Pr. Klaus Kohlmann and Petra Kersten, (Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin), as well as those from Jian Feng Zhou and his team (Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Wuhan China) indicate that domestic, wild and feral carp from Western Europe, specially those from Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Spain and Israel show the same genetic markers in mitochondrial DNA as those from Central Asia (notably Uzbekistan). Those markers differ in the carp from East and South East Asia (mainly Russia, Vietnam, China and Japan). These differences also show up in two other genetic markers.  It seems after all that my ancestors are “Cyprinus carpio carpio” and appeared sometime during the Pleistocene era in the watersheds of the Aral, Caspian and Black Seas then dispersed in the Danube River. Meanwhile other strains like “Cyprinus carpio haematopterus” traveled via the eastern route from Siberia to China and Japan. This occurred some 500,000 years ago based on the calibration of the observed mutation rate observed in these studies. I’m so happy with my new origin! I just can’t stop humming “the Blue Danube”!






When I regained some of my composure, I put my glasses on and began to check Literature about us in Western Europe (Richard C. Hoffman and E.K. Balon’s work).  The trouble is that classical times authors didn’t actually observe the animal they described but simply repeated what they heard from oral or lost written sources.


Kyprianos (the Greek form) or Cyprinus (the Latin one) are the first references made to my species. Aristotle, in his history of animals (4th century B.C.), mentioned 110 different fish including us: “Cyprinus, a river fish with 4 gills, a fleshy palate and eggs the size of millet grain. It spawns 5 to 6 times a year, scattering its eggs in shallow waters but guarding the slowly developing eggs masses if it can find them again, individuals without reproductive organs become very fat. With less harm than the catfish suffers, Cyprinus can be struck by a clap of thunder.” He obviously didn’t know much about us! He knew much more about sea fish… but at least he tried to organize all the facts and to classify the fish, the four legged animals and the “monsters” in separate categories.

This information was copied by Pliny the Elder (1st century A.D.) in his history of animals. Pliny was the bestselling author of his time and a wonderful storyteller, but we were evidently as unfamiliar to him as to Aristotle. Oppian in his “Halieuthica” refers to “Kyprianos, gentle seashore fish which breeds several times”. Sea fish really! They were no scientists...
Aelian (2nd century A.D.) was the first author to say something accurate about us: “Kyprianos a black fish caught through ice during winter in Danube”. Polemius Silvius, a Roman administrator (5th century A.D.), compiled in his book “Laterculus” a list of 14 different fishes including Cyprinus. 

Then along came Cassiodorus, Roman consul for the Goth King Theodoric (6th century). He named us “Carpam Danubium” and considered us good enough to be served by his king to foreign ambassadors. His words are music to my gills: “from Danube come carp and from Rhine salmon. To provide a variety of flavor, it is necessary to have many fishes from many countries. A king’s reign should be such as to indicate that he possesses everything”. This is the first mention of carp in the Western world, as far as we know. The strange thing is Cassiodorus didn’t link the word carp with the Kyprianos or Cyprinus form despite the fact that he had an extensive knowledge of both Latin and Ancient Greek. Does it mean that the Kyprianos or Cyprinus referred to others cyprinids, my distant cousins? This question lasted until the 16th century, when Jan Dubravius a humanist cleric, wrote in 1547: “and because the sound of – carpo - is barbarous, it seems proper on that account to be rejected and in its place – cyprinus - substituted which is used widely by the Greeks and the Latins”. After that every author will follow his advice and scientists will stick to Cyprinus!


After the 6th century, I couldn’t find any written sources about us in Western Europe (see Richard C. Hoffman and Stephan Schuller’s work). The silence about carp between the 6th and the 10th century seems astounding at first.  But when I began to think about it, I realized that after the fall of the Roman Empire, the humans were constantly at war with each other. A great political instability followed. Manuscripts were lost or burned. Charts and household accounts (even for wealthy families) are scarce. Then slowly the world became a safer place, Christianity slowly spread everywhere, along with the construction of new civil and religious building and dwellings.



Anthimus, a Frankish king’s physician from the 6th century included pike, bream, roach, perch and eel in his list of fish but does not mention carp. Isidore, Bishop of Seville, in the 7th century, wrote a book named “Ethymologiae”. It’s a sort of encyclopedia where he tries to explain the knowledge of things from the origin of their name. In its “pisces” (fish) part he doesn’t mention us but spent hours speaking about the “porcus marinus” (nobody knows what he referred to!). I put a lot of hope in Raban Maure, Abbot of Fulda in Germany during the 9th century, author of another encyclopedia “de rerum naturis” (Nature of Things), but he didn’t mention us either. He knows a lot about saltwater fish and his work even contains a nice miniature of a man fishing with a rod in the Mediterranean Sea! He wrote a lot about the fisherman’s life, even reported the sight of a lady lying in the sea and breastfeeding 2 dragons, but no trace of carp in his book!  So it is safe to assume, that during all this time my carp ancestors are still wild fishes from the lower Danube River.






Richard C. Hoffmann points to 3 written references about us before the 12th century: a fairy tale composed at Tegernsee Abbey around 1180 A.D. listed carp with several other fishes of Upper Bavaria (Germany); William of Hirsau, Abbot of a Cluniac Abbey in the Black Forest (Germany) expanded a manuscript of signs the monks use during compulsory silence with a sign for “a fish which is popularly called carp” (1091 A.D.); and the manuscript “Summarium Heinrici” copied at the same time in the city of Worms, contains the word “Carp or Carpho” and its Latin translation “Carabus”… That’s a new one!  So it’s safe to assume we appeared in the Rhine River during the 11th century.







It took time to learn all my vernacular names. In West and North Europe, beginning in the 11th century, my name Carp was translated as Karpfen in German, Carpa in Italian, Carpe in French, Carpas in Spanish or Portuguese, Karper in Dutch, Karpe in Danish, Karpis in Latvian, Karpor in Slovak, Kapr in Czech and Karp or Karpiowate in Polish (supposedly of Celtic origin most likely derived from Greek, Latin and German forms!). West of the Danube, I’m called Ponty in Hungarian, Sharan in Serbian, Saran in Bulgarian, Crap, Ciortocrap, Saran, Ciortan, Ciuciu, Olocari or Ulucari in Romanian (wow, impressive, they must be fond of my kind in Romania), Sazan Baligi or Husgun in Turkish, Saran in Croatian, Sharan or Prodojeck in Ukrainian, Sazan in Russian and Kalynshyr in Kirgisia.






Finally, I tried the archeological approach. I found no reliable data prior to the Ice Age period around the Caspian Sea area. Archeological finds show a lot of carp bones in Mesolithic times, at Vlasac (Danube Gorges in the North central Balkans border of Romania and Serbia) between 8,000-7,400 B.C., in a pit full of food remains. A few of my ancestors seem to have been cooked there by rolling them with fresh herbs, smearing it entirely with clay and putting it on a split log on the fire for some time. Then the human would smash the clay and eat us! In spring 2006, a new site was discovered near Vlasac (6,200 B.C.) and a burial site showed a sepulcher containing 350 pierced carp pharyngeal teeth believed to have adorned the clothes of the deceased! In another tomb, carp teeth were found around the neck and shoulder of the human perhaps as part of a headdress. The Lepenski-Vir culture (named after the nearby Danube’s tributary) shows that these human were fishers-foragers using my ancestors as a source of food as well part of their death rituals.






In 6,200 B.C., in a little village named Luncavita-Centatuia (Romania), a small Neolithic community named Gumelnita developed living from agriculture, hunting and fishing, with remains of 11 fish species in evidence. The big fish found there were Wels catfish and carp and were probably caught with harpoons made out of deer antlers.




In 3,600 B.C. in Hocevarica, a little town 10 miles from Ljubljansko Barje (Slovenia), during the Eneolithic period, archeologists searched a pile-dwelling in 1998 and found remains of 5 species of fish: common carp, rudd, pike, perch and roach. It’s the oldest certified presence of my carp ancestors in Slovenia. Judging from the size of the teeth the carp eaten in Hocevarica were of bigger size than the specimen in Romania or Yugoslavia, a few kilograms (3 to 5 kg. up to 10 lb). What was interesting too was the discovery of fishing equipment in the pile: parts of nets, weights, hooks and spears. The big fish (large perch, carp and Wels) were probably caught with harpoons. My carp ancestors were the most abundant fish found in the dwelling.





Archeological evidence also attests that the Roman occupation along the Danube River brought a strong military occupation and an abundant amount of carp bones in food remains of fortresses between Vienna (Austria) and Budapest (Hungary), in what was the “Pannonia Romana Provincia”. Four Roman legions were deployed along 150 miles of the river Danube and with them their families, allies, slaves and some traders.  Digs near the Dabcikovo Dam, Iza, Leany Var (Slovakia) or in Novae (eastern limits of the Balkans) in Roman settlements and castles (2nd to 4th century A.D.) showed more carp remains than any other fish, even sturgeon and Wels. Traces of Roman settlement were found near the Sava River (a tributary of the Danube) in Ribnica na Dolenjskem with lots of carp remains too.


Assumptions were made that we were kept in Italian Piscinae (fishponds) by legionaries coming back home to Italy and having developed a taste for carp. However, no carp bones, Roman wall paintings or mosaics representing carp have ever been found in Italy! Of course that doesn’t mean they weren’t present or consumed! Now that carp were found near the Sava River during Roman occupation, it places the fish near a large Roman highway, in a river system pretty close from Italy, making transportation more bearable for the poor fish which would have to suffer it. The only likely representation of a carp in the Roman world could exist in a mosaic in a French Gallo-roman house named “Domus du Pinard” (a plebeian house called “House of Wine”) in the Rhone Valley with fresh water fishes swimming in a Piscinae (pike, tench, salmon and eel were surely identified) but the last one could be a carp! Eating freshwater fish was considered plebeian. Usually archaeological digs take place in luxurious aristocratic villas whose owners preferred fish from the sea.




Before 1100 A.D. archeology shows that we began to spread along the Lower and Middle Danube, Rhine, Elbe and Odra River systems. From the analysis of our bones, here is a description of my ancestors “2000 years ago, the common carp was shaped like a torpedo, golden colored with 2 pairs of barbels and a regular scale on the whole body” (E. K. Balon op. cited). That sounds pretty much like how I look today! 






This first part of my story showed the young wild fish in me, when I was roaming all along the Danube and beginning to explore the Rhine. My only enemies were humans of course, but they only fished for me occasionally and not extensively. My family truly originated from the Danube basin and was separated from its Chinese relatives half a million years ago! Stay tuned for Old Babbling Carp (a brief history of Carp), Part Two.






Note: I used many sources to write this article. Due to editorial constraints, I just cited the authors’ names. This article will be put online on Carpiopedia, including all the references. Many thanks to Monty Mittleman for the “Old carp” drawing.