Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Viking Age Hunters and Blue Whales

Environmental & Science Education, Science & Society, Wildlife, Nature, Society, Culture, Nature of Science, History of Science

Ed Hessler

This is based on an essay in Hakai: Coastal Science and Societies in which writer Andrew Chapman discusses "new research (that) suggests that medieval Icelanders were scavenging and likely even hunting blue whales before industrial whaling technology."

Chapman begins by relating the story of a 17th century Icelandic fisherman who thrust his spear into a blue whale. The spear "would have been marked with the (fisherman's) emblem  and if all went well (the whale would have been mortally wounded and) "would wash  up dead on a nearby shore" where he would collect his bounty.

The whale didn't but ended up on the shores of Greenland some 1700 km (~1056 miles) to the west on a Greenland beach where it was eaten by a party, "staving off starvation." They found the marked spear tip but knew that the whale could not be delivered to the Icelandic fisherman.

Chapman tells us about the work of environmental historian Dr. Vicki Szabo, Western Carolina University who has been studying Norse texts for some three decades. Since 2015 she has been leading a multidisciplinary team of archaeologists, historians, folklorists, and geneticists to try to answer...whether medieval Icelanders (were) really hunting blue whales centuries before the invention of exploding harpoons and faster steam-powered ships? If so, how were they doing it, and how often?" Grant information, an abstract and publications produced as a result of the research is linked in Chapman's essay (multidisciplinary team).

This research is another dramatic example of the use of DNA analytic technologies. Oh the changes they have wrought in leading researchers to new knowledge, understanding and corroborating evidence for hypotheses, one way or the other. DNA it was found that over half of 124 whale bones analyzed were those of blue whales. Chapman notes that the results "staggered" Szabo.

The story becomes even more exciting with Szabo learning about a new site which is a whalebone paradise. Weather conditions at the site are miserable (powerful winds and rains) but each year the ocean is removing more and more whale bones to the deep. And the end of her her grant is projected to be mid-November, 2024.

Chapman includes many details of the use of whales for food by these Icelanders, the shift to modern whale hunting techniques, meat storage techniques, societal changes including complicated laws, and the variety of uses of whale bones.

Chapman ends with a story of the Icelandic fisherman who speared the whale at the beginning. He had a later experience that led him to quit spearing which is deeply moving. 

This is a wonderful story, beautifully illustrated with images of old texts, maps, and drawings as well as photographs. 

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