Cichlid Room Companion


Our First Aquarium Cichlid

By , 2005. image
Albert J. Klee, 2005

Classification: Captive maintenance, Africa.

" Al traces down the oldest known records of cichlid keeping to the times of the oldest egypcians and explain the results of his research, what was the first cichlid spcies kept in aquarium? "

(This article was originally published in the December 2005 issue of the Buntbarsche Bulletin (Number 231), a publication of the American Cichlid Association, and appears here with the permission of the author).
hieroglyphics from ancient Egypt Fish hieroglyphics from ancient Egypt. A Tilapia is shown at the right within the white frame in the lowermost image. Photo by Albert Klee.

When I first became interested in tracing the roots of the aquarium hobby I was faced with the Gordian knot of defining terms. One of the most difficult was in pinning down the meaning of "hobby" in the aquarium context and, although it might not seem as if it would, even the definition of "aquarium" posed a problem. Indeed, the definition of "aquarium" was the subject of detailed analyses through the years by such renowned and respected figures as William Alford Lloyd (1876), Philip F. Rehbock (1980), and Stephen Jay Gould (1998). Trying to pin down a concise explanation of the meaning of a word or a term sometimes is sometimes akin to attempting to estimate the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin! It also should be recognized that, in defining an object, the definition then limits the object, and this may have unforeseen consequences.

One way out of this dilemma is to avoid definitions and examine the major stages in the development of the aquarium hobby instead. Consequently, I was able to distinguish four such distinct events. STAGE I started when people began to keep fish for their ornamental and entertainment value in ponds and in indoor containers, e.g., the piscina (from piscis, a fish, fish-pond, pool or basin - the term later took on different meanings) of the Romans, and the goldfish ponds of the Chinese a thousand years ago. Although the owner of any respectable Roman villa could look down on the animals in his fishpond, they could only be viewed from above through the opacity of rippled water. The same held for the indoor containers of the time since they also were either translucent or opaque-sided.

STAGE II involved any container of glass or other transparent medium that afforded the viewing of a fish in a more direct, edge-on, eye-to-eye orientation, i.e., what we know as the "fish bowl," although the shape of the container varied widely. The first Stage II fish keeper of record was Jeanne Rondelet, who kept a fish alive in a glass of water for three years sometime in the late 1530's or early 1540's. In the mid to late 1700's, the keeping of fish in glass containers became fashionable in Great Britain and included such illustrious personages as Horace Walpole, the 4th Earl of Oxford.

The aquarium craze of the mid 1850's in Britain brought on STAGE III of the aquarium hobby, characterized by the interpretation of the aquarium as a mini-representation of a small portion of some natural aquatic environment (the marine aquaria of the time, for example, were frequently referred to as "parlour" oceans), an availability of books on the subject, and the existence of commercial establishments supplying fish and equipment. Finally, towards the end of the Twentieth Century STAGE IV appeared, i.e., the notion of aquarium societies, exhibitions, and competitions, all strengthened by improved communication through the appearance for the first time of aquarium magazines, advances in travel, and the changing nature of cities.

Although Jeanne Rondelet kept a fish alive in a glass of water for three years in the Sixteenth Century, I doubt that most readers would agree that this established the aquarium hobby in France at that time. When one talks about the aquarium hobby, therefore, it makes sense to think in terms of Stage IV of the hobby. An interesting case in point, therefore, is in determining the first aquarium cichlid. If we restrict ourselves to the aquarium hobby (sensu Stage IV) then it is clearly the Chanchito, Cichlasoma facetum. If, on the other hand, we are seeking the first cichlid kept in an aquarium then the field is wide open. Some writers (e.g., Geerts, 2005) erroneously assign it to the Orange Chromide, Etroplus maculatus, but they are thousands of years off, as well as missing the correct fish!

hieroglyphics from ancient Egypt A sample of fish hieroglyphics taken from Egyptian tombs. The six in the lower left corner depict Tilapia, and the last (magnified to the right) shows it in a vessel of some sort.

It is well documented that the Egyptians kept fish in aquaria, and hieroglyphics in the tombs of the Pharaohs very clearly describe the farming of tilapia in ancient Egypt. In the mid 1970's I traveled extensively in Egypt and observed and photographed many of the hieroglyphics depicting fishes. The accompanying figure shows line drawings taken from some of them. The six in the lower left corner are drawings of a tilapia, the last showing it in a vessel of some sort, i.e., an aquarium.

The ancient Egyptians kept fish for food, to be sure. However, large quantities of fish bones have been found at various archeological sites in Egypt and, given the fact that the bones were found in accordance with the real animal shape, it is certain that the animals were deposited while still in the flesh and therefore played a religious role.

Oddly enough, the Egyptians had opposing views regarding fishes. They were often considered as unclean animals and were forbidden as offerings and food to kings, gods, and the priesthood. When the cult of Osiris became popular, fish were identified with his evil brother Seth, the god of chaos and confusion, since (according to Plutarch) people believed that the Nile Carp (Lepidotus) had eaten the phallus of the dismembered Osiris. Therefore, on certain feast days fishes were burned and trampled underfoot as an offering.

On the other hand, despite the belief of those just cited, fishes were often regarded as sacred animals. The elephant fish, Sternarchorhynchus oxyrhynchus, for example, was considered to have been created out of Osiris' wounds. This fish was also connected to the important goddess Hathor and also acted as a pilot fish for the solar bark of the sun god, Ra, warning of the approach of the snake Apophis during the sun's voyage through the underworld. The tilapia also seems to have been a manifestation of Ra. As aquarists well know, a mouth brooder, it keeps its fertilized eggs in its mouth until they are fry and then spits them out. It therefore appears to be swallowing and then "giving birth" to them and, as such, is therefore a symbol of rebirth. Furthermore, this fish was associated with fertility and had a strong erotic connotation. To offer a tilapia, for example, was considered as an invitation to love.

Tilapia Above: Tilapia nilotica. Below: Tilapia galilaea.

Arthur E. P. B. Weigall (2005) writes that three thousand years ago, an Egyptian man wrote this poem about his home: "Its fields are full of good things and it has provision for every day. Its granaries overflow... they reach the sky. Its ponds are full of fishes and its lakes of birds. Its fields are green with grass and its banks bear dates. He who lives there is happy and the poor man is like the great elsewhere." These ponds certainly contained tilapia, but which tilapia?

The accompanying table lists the fish species documented from excavations in Egypt. The table is based on archeological investigations related to cultural studies that, in contrast to the antiquarianism of classical archaeology, are concerned with the explanation of cultural processes such as foods eaten and animals domesticated or farmed. The table is interesting in that it contains some very familiar aquarium fishes, e.g., elephant fishes, the bichir, labeos, a barb, and a host of well-known aquarium catfishes. Included are two species of tilapia - Tilapia nilotica and Tilapia galilaea. It is often assumed that the tilapia shown in Egyptian hieroglyphics is Tilapia nilotica, but as it is not possible to distinguish between the two species by looking at the hieroglyphs, it is therefore not certain which of the two is our first aquarium cichlid. As the reader can appreciate, nailing down these "firsts" is not an easy task nor is it always possible.


1 Bichir, Polypterus bichir 23 Schilbe mystus
2 Mormyrus caschive 24 Nile Catfish or Hog catfish, Bagrus docmac
3 Mormyrus kannume 25 Bagrus bayad
4 Mormyrops anguilloides 26 Auchenoglanis occidentalis
5 Gnathonemus cyprinoides 27 Chrysichthys auratus
6 Hyperopisus bebe 28 Chrysichthys rueppelli
7 Hydrocyon forskali (= Hydrocinus forskali) 29 Synodontis schall
8 Alestes dentex 30 Synodontis batensoda
9 Alestes baremose 31 Synodontis membranaceus
10 Disticodus niloticus 32 Synodontis serratus
11 Citharinus citharus 33 Synodontis frontosus
12 Citharinus latus 34 Synodontis sorex
13 Barbus bynni 35 Malapterurus electricus
14 Labeo niloticus 36 Mugil capito (= Liza ramada)
15 Labeo horie 37 Mugil cephalus
16 Labeo coubie 38 Nile perch, Lates niloticus
17 Labeo forskalii 39 Tilapia nilotica (= Oreochromis niloticus)
18 Clarias lazera (= Clarias gairepinus) 40 Tilapia galilaea (= Sarotherodon)
19 Clarias anguillaris 41 Tetrodon fahaka
20 Heterobranchus longifilis 42 Sparus aurata
21 Heterobranchus bidorsalis 43 Morone punctatus (= Dicentrarchus punctatus)
22 Eutropius niloticus 44 Johnius hololepidotus (= Argyrosomus regius = Sciaena aquila)

References (7):


Klee, Albert J.. (Jan 01, 2006). "Our First Aquarium Cichlid". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on Nov 27, 2022, from:

Name substitutions