It was previously known that whaling had been carried out in Europe for hundreds of years, but little was known about pre-industrial whaling on this continent. A new study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science and involving the University of Oviedo through the Institute of Natural Resources and Territorial Orientation (Indurot) suggests that these first whaling activities were widespread and had a significant impact on the Whale populations had European waters.
A group of archaeologists led by Youri van den Hurk from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology analyzed 719 bones from archaeological sites in northern and western Europe and their preserved collagen to identify the species. (Read: Prehistoric Artists Carved Footprints So Real You Can Still Recognize Them)
Carlos Nores, an Indurot researcher and participant in the study, explains that archaeologists discovered that many bones came from two species of whales that no longer occur in European waters.
More than 300 bone remains are believed to come from the North Atlantic right whale. This large species of whale is currently only found off the North American coast of the North Atlantic, although it was once widely caught in European waters.
The North Atlantic right whale is threatened with extinction; there are only 300 to 400 individuals left. The second species found in large quantities is the gray whale, of which just over 100 bones were found. This species is now extinct in the North Atlantic and is currently only found in the North Pacific. (Read: The strange case of a fly that can’t fly)
Nores emphasizes that both the North Atlantic right whale and the gray whale are very coastal species, which puts them within the range of medieval whalers such as the Cantabrian Spaniards, the Normans, the Flemish and the Scandinavians. The study suggests that whaling may have played a key role in its disappearance from European waters even before the Middle Ages.
Additionally, the work suggests that gray whale hunting has existed for a long time. The Vlaardingen culture in the Netherlands did this in the Late Stone Age, between 3500 and 2500 BC. BC, which may represent one of the oldest whaling traditions in Europe.
Learn from the past with an eye on the future
The researchers note that looking into the past provides a better understanding of where the North Atlantic right whale and gray whale lived and what their migration patterns were.
In the last two decades, at least three gray whales from the North Pacific have reentered the Atlantic. For the preservation of Europe, it is crucial to understand what impact the first whaling activities had on the people living in Europe. Should a return to European waters occur, we can better protect the gray whale by knowing where it once thrived.
Carlos Nores emphasizes that the work now published is the most comprehensive archaeozoological study on cetaceans carried out across Europe to date. (Read: Colombia is changing the way it assesses the activity of its volcanoes)
“96 whale bone remains from Luanco, Candás, Lastres, Gobiendes, Ribadesella, Toranda and Llanes were examined, as well as another 48 from other Spanish provinces such as Cantabria (Oyambre), A Coruña (Porto de Bares), Lugo (San Cibrao) and Pontevedra (A Lanzada and Pontevedra) and Cantabria,” says the researcher from the University of Oviedo.
The study also provided information about the capture of whales in the Roman period and the early Middle Ages, periods during which there was almost no written documentation of whaling in Europe and about which archeology can provide new and important information.
This early use explains why the gray whale disappeared so quickly from the Atlantic Ocean and its presence in our waters went unnoticed during the best-known period of late medieval and early modern whaling.
Although the Bay of Biscay did not appear to be the optimal habitat for this species, as most of the remains were found on the coasts of Flanders and the Netherlands, the study identified gray whale specimens in San Cibrao (Lugo), Cudillero and Guéthary (Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France), which join those already identified a few years ago in Campa Torres (Gijón) and in the province of Cádiz (Bologna and Algeciras).