Some whales may have been exterminated by medieval Europeans | ET REALITY


Industrial-scale whaling in the 19th and 20th centuries nearly drove many species of whales to extinction. Populations of some large marine mammals are just beginning to recover after the type of predation described in the novel “Moby-Dick,” while others face continued danger to their existence. But it turns out that the effects of whaling on where whales live goes back much deeper in human history.

A new analysis of ancient whale bones, published on wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science, suggests that medieval European hunting may have played a role in the disappearance of some whales from northeast Atlantic waters long before Captain Ahab, Ishmael and the Pequod searched for their great white whale.

As far back as 8,000 years ago, humans carved their attempts to capture whales into the cliffs of South Korea. More recently, medieval texts described the whaling preferences of Europeans. For example, an Old Norse text from around 1250 AD. C. warns that “there are certain varieties that are ferocious and savage towards men and constantly seek to destroy them at every opportunity,” but other more docile species of whales “are constantly captured.” and they are driven ashore by hundreds, and when many are captured, they provide much food to men.”

Youri van den Hurk, a zooarchaeologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and author of the study, wanted to back up the information in these texts with physical and biological evidence. So he and his colleagues examined 719 pieces of whale bones collected at archaeological sites from Norway to Portugal.

“These whale bones are regularly found during archaeological excavations, but they are often very fragmented,” said Dr van den Hurk. “Identifying these whale bones to the species level is actually quite difficult, even when these bones are actually complete.”

Bones contain a protein called collagen, and the chemical composition of collagen differs between species and families of whales.

“This can give us a lot of information about what kind of species these bones actually represent,” said Dr. van den Hurk.

Analysis of the results noted that a disproportionate number of whales are now extinct in the northeast Atlantic. The 334 right whales that appeared in the analysis were not a surprise to Dr van den Hurk, because they are frequently mentioned in historical sources and some survived until the early 20th century.

But the results also showed that 110 of the bones belonged to gray whales, something that is not as well documented.

“Meeting so many of them was quite a surprise,” said Dr. van den Hurk.

It is almost impossible to know whether a bone fragment came from a whale that was actively hunted rather than rescued from a whale that washed up on the beach. However, hunters have long valued right and gray whales because they are more docile than other species and their bodies float. The disproportionate number of right and gray whale bones at archaeological sites indicates that ancient Europeans sought these species.

Dr. van den Hurk and his colleagues hypothesize that centuries of targeting these species contributed to the eventual collapse of their population in the region. In the case of gray whales, “the final blow that actually contributed to the complete extirpation of this species from the North Atlantic was delivered by whalers” centuries ago, he said.

Vicki Ellen Szabo, a historian at Western Carolina University who reviewed the article for the magazine, said the research was “striking” for the evidence it presents for the human role in the disappearance of Europe’s right and gray whales.

“Did humans put the nail in the coffin of the species in the North Atlantic? Unclear. Did they contribute to that? Yes,” Dr. Szabo said. “I think it’s an extremely sobering story. It shows that people used to perceive the ocean as an unlimited supply, until it wasn’t, until the whales changed course or could no longer be found.”

The threat to North Atlantic right whales continues: there are only 300 specimens left in the world. Gray whales have disappeared from the North Atlantic for centuries, but they are still common in the North Pacific.

Knowing more about where gray whales once lived in European waters could allow scientists to help conserve current populations, especially as climate change alters the whales’ ecosystems.

“By looking back, we can optimize our understanding of what potential modern or future whale individuals will do in European waters and protect them more efficiently,” said Dr van den Hurk.

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