Whale of a Mystery

WORLD

In excavated waste heaps, researchers have found evidence that ancient Greenlanders may have been eating large amounts of bowhead whale. But these 4,000-year-old “dumpsters” are from millennia before humans had the technology to hunt down such massive prey. (NPR)

How long have people been whaling? Use our article to find out.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

Whaling has been a part of Arctic cultures for thousands of years. Even today, both the Saqqaq and Eskimo (above) are given an Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling quota by the International Whaling Commission. According to the most recent agreement, “the number of bowhead whales struck from the West Greenland shall not exceed 2” through 2018. Photograph by Emory Kristoff, National Geographic

Whaling has been a part of Arctic cultures for thousands of years. Even today, both the Saqqaq and Eskimo (above, butchering a bowhead) are given an Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling quota by the International Whaling Commission. According to the most recent agreement, “the number of bowhead whales struck from the West Greenland shall not exceed 2” through 2018.
Photograph by Emory Kristoff, National Geographic

We love this chart! It represents the relative abundances of the 10 most common mammal species identified across all sites in the Greenland study. The focus of this study guide is the oldest, Saqqaq, culture—ut we love how the Vikings brought their cattle with them! Image by Frederik Valeur Seersholm et. al. “DNA evidence of bowhead whale exploitation by Greenlandic Paleo-Inuit 4,000 years ago” Nature Communications 7, Article number: 13389 (2016)

We love this chart! It represents the relative abundances of the 10 most common mammal species identified across all sites in the Greenland study. The focus of this study guide is the oldest, Saqqaq, culture—but we love how data reveals that the Vikings brought their cattle with them!
Image by Frederik Valeur Seersholm et. al. “DNA evidence of bowhead whale exploitation by Greenlandic Paleo-Inuit 4,000 years agoNature Communications 7, Article number: 13389 (2016)

Discussion Ideas

  • How did scientists figure out the Saqqaq, or indigenous people of western Greenland, were eating bowhead whale 4,000 years ago?
    • Scientists lifted the lid on 4,000-year-old “dumpsters.” These trash heaps, called middens, are filled with ancient kitchen refuse. What did they find in the middens?

 

 

  • Scientists are puzzled as to how ancient Saqqaq could have consistently, successfully hunted bowhead whales. What are the three possible explanations offered in the NPR article? Which explanation would you pursue if you were an archaeologist studying the problem?
    • Very skilled, very brave hunters in single-person kayaks armed with small spears.Maneuvering against the wind and tide, hunters can avoid detection and creep up on resting whales at the surface. ‘If you stab it with the lance just below the flipper, you can hit it straight into the heart,’” says one expert. Keep in mind, the largest spear from this period is 16.6 centimeters (6.5 inches) and these are 15-meter (50-foot) animals that weigh 80 tons. Like we said—hunters would have to be very skilled, and very brave.
    • Beached whales. Whales wash up on or near beaches all the time. Saqqaq communities likely took advantage of this meat and nutrient-rich blubber whenever they could.
    • Modern contamination. The four sites studied cover “the entire history of human occupation in Greenland, represented by remains from Thule, Norse, Dorset and Saqqaq cultures,” and “it’s not impossible that oils from dead whales [from later cultures] seeped into the archaeological sites over the years.”

 

  • How might archaeologists dig further into this mystery?
    • Dig deeper into the trash heaps! Examine soils from other ancient Greenlandic and Arctic middens to compare the presence of bowhead whale DNA?
    • Study the DNA! See if sophisticated technology can narrow down the time period when the bowhead whale DNA may have been deposited? Compare the DNA of other midden finds, as well as living whales to see if there are any patterns?
    • Listen! Research oral traditions to see if any clues to truly ancient whaling techniques or consumption exist as myths, legends, or fairy tales? Compare these stories with what was available?

 

TEACHERS TOOLKIT

NPR: In Ancient Trash Heaps, A Whale Hunting Puzzle Emerges

Nat Geo: Big Fish: A Brief History of Whaling article

(extra credit, and a good read!) Nature Communications: DNA evidence of bowhead whale exploitation by Greenlandic Paleo-Inuit 4,000 years ago

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