Some Whales May Have Been Wiped Out by Medieval Europeans

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

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

As early as 8,000 years ago, humans carved their attempts to capture whales into South Korean cliffs. More recently, medieval texts described the whaling preferences of Europeans. For instance, an Old Norse text from around 1250 A.D. cautions that “there are certain varieties that are fierce and savage toward men and are constantly seeking to destroy them at every chance,” but other, more docile species of whales “are constantly being caught and driven to land by the hundreds, and where many are caught, they provide much food for men.”

Youri van den Hurk, a zooarchaeologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and an author of the study, wanted to back up the information in these texts with physical, 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 semi-regularly found during archaeological excavations, but they’re often very fragmented,” Dr. van den Hurk said. “Identifying these whale bones to the species level is actually fairly hard, even when these bones are really complete.”

While it’s nearly impossible to tell whether a bone fragment came from a whale that was hunted rather than one that washed up on a beach, a disproportionate number of right and gray whale bones at archaeological sites suggests ancient Europeans sought out these species.Credit…van den Hurk et al., Royal Society Open Science 2023

Bones contain a protein called collagen, and the chemical makeup of collagen differs across whale species and families.

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

Analysis of the results pointed to a disproportionate number of whales that are now extinct in the northeastern Atlantic. The 334 right whales that turned up in the analysis weren’t a surprise to Dr. van den Hurk, because they’re 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, which are not as well documented.

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

It’s nearly impossible to tell whether a bone fragment came from a whale that was actively hunted as opposed to salvaged from a whale that washed up on the beach. However, right and gray whales have long been prized by hunters because they’re 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 were seeking out these species.

Dr. van den Hurk and his colleagues hypothesize that centuries of targeting these species contributed to their eventual population collapse 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 dealt by whalers” centuries ago, he said.

Vicki Ellen Szabo, a historian at Western Carolina University, who reviewed the paper for the journal, said that the research was “striking” for the evidence it puts forward for a 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 is an extremely cautionary tale. It shows people used to perceive of the ocean this limitless, boundless supply, until it wasn’t, until the whales shifted course, or the whales could no longer be found.”

The threat to North Atlantic right whales continues, with as few as 300 individuals left in the entire world. gray whales have been gone from the North Atlantic for centuries but 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 into the past, we can optimize our understanding of what potential modern or future whale individuals will do in European waters and protect them more efficiently,” Dr. van den Hurk said.

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