Whaling in Arctic Prehistory

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Members of a Russian-American team investigating the early history of whaling have made a spectacular find at Un’en’en, near the modern whaling village of Nunligran, on Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula. Right at the end of their 2007 season they uncovered an ivory carving, approximately 0.5m in length, engraved with scenes of men in umiaks (wooden framed boats covered in seal or walrus hide) harpooning whales. The carving was found sealed by the roof timbers of a collapsed structure that has been carbon dated to 1,000 BC.

The images on the carving suggest that methods of boat building and hunting for whales and walruses had changed little over three millennia. For the coastal Chukchi and Yupik Eskimo people of the peninsula, located in the northeastern corner of Russia’s Far East, on the opposite side of the Bering Strait from Alaska, subsistence whaling remains an important source of food today.

Archaeologists also found tools for hunting and butchering on a site that was originally discovered by Sergey Gusev, of the Institute for Heritage in Moscow, the Russian Co-Director of the project, in 2003. The US Co-Director, Daniel Odess of the University of Alaska Museum of the North, said ‘The importance of whaling in Arctic prehistory is now becoming clear. Prehistoric settlements were situated and defended specifically so that people could hunt whales’. •

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 29. Click here to subscribe

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