Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Slack-Jawed Wonder: Early Whaling

These are pieces of walrus ivory inscribed with detailed pictograms depicting coordinated whaling activity in eastern Russia:

Archaeologists working in the Russian Arctic have unearthed a remarkably detailed carving of groups of hunters engaged in whaling — sticking harpoons into the great mammals. The same site also yielded heavy stone blades that had been broken as if by some mighty impact, and remains from a number of dead whales. All of this adds up to the probability that the site, called Un’en’en, holds the earliest straightforward evidence of the practice of whaling ... It pushes back direct evidence for whaling by about 1,000 years.
I've always been fascinated with the idea that someone actually tried whaling in the first place, and then having somehow survived it that first time, kept with it and developed it into a coherent hunting practice. And, judging from the presence of stone blades, apparently they did so long before they used metal for tools or weapons.

Seaborne whaling with, literally, sticks and stones, requires great deal of courage, a great deal of recklessness, a great deal of boredom, or a great deal of hunger -- perhaps all of the above. And an utter indifference to the suffering of whales would help too. Apparently they gained valuable experience by practicing on walruses, whose tusks they used for writing surfaces.

It's easy to picture developing a taste for whale meat based on eating the few that die naturally and wash up on shore. And maybe they also found a way to hunt them through holes in the ice; polar bears, after all, use this method to hunt seals, and these humans would have been very familiar with polar bears. But if polar bears fall in the water while hunting, they don't die from hypothermia within a few minutes. Humans do!

The idea that people piled into small boats and chased after live whales in the frigid waters of the arctic fills me with slack-jawed wonder. The bravest thing I've ever done for food is rock a vending machine to shake loose a bag of chips it was barely holding. It could have fallen on me!

Maybe I'm just too easily mystified. I read Guns, Germs, and Steel but I still find it baffling that humans ever stumbled across the idea of eating rice; it's not exactly ready for the plate as it grows. And then there's the fact that what we know as potatoes were first picked out of llama droppings. Who was first in line on that one?

1 comment:

Laura said...

Fascinating facts, Dale! I read an article in The New Yorker a few months back about the whaling industry in the 1800's off Long Island. Apparently man a man who had "taken his pleasure" with a woman and needed to make a quick getaway, found himself on a whaling boat.