To Hill, though, some of the most compelling artifacts came from whaling cultures. Museum collections across North America, for instance, include a dazzling array of objects categorized as whaling amulets.
From this grab bag, Hill identified 20 carved wooden objects. Many served as the seats of whaling boats. One in particular stands out. The artifacts were housed in hundreds of floor-to-ceiling drawers, row after row of them, with little indication of what was inside.
She pulled open one drawer and there it was—the perfect likeness of a bowhead whale staring back at her. The object, likely from the late 19th century, probably functioned as a crosspiece.
It was hewn from a hunk of driftwood into a crescent shape 21 centimeters long. A precious bead of obsidian was embedded in the blowhole.
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The meticulously rendered art was thus meant not for humans, but for whales—to flatter them, Hill says, and call them to the hunters. Yupik stories from St. Lawrence Island tell of whales who might spend an hour swimming directly under an umiak, positioning themselves so they could check out the carvings and the men occupying the boat. If the umiak was clean, the carvings beautiful, and the men respectful, the whale might reposition itself to be harpooned.
Then the whale might swim away. They bathed in special pools, prayed, spoke quietly, and avoided startling movements that might offend whales. Right before the hunt, the whalers sang a song asking the whale to give itself. It was choosing to be killed by hunters who had demonstrated, through good behavior and careful adherence to rituals, that they would treat its remains in a way that would allow it to be reborn.
Yupik tradition, for example, holds that beluga whales once lived on land and long to return to terra firma. They were part of everyday life; the physical manifestation of an ongoing, daily dialogue between the human and animal worlds. While Westerners domesticated and eventually industrialized the animals we eat—and thus came to view them as dumb and inferior—Arctic cultures saw whale hunting as a match between equals. Bipedal humans with rudimentary technology faced off against animals as much as 1, times their size that were emotional, thoughtful, and influenced by the same social expectations that governed human communities.
In fact, whales were thought to live in an underwater society paralleling that above the sea. Throughout history, similar beliefs have guided other human-animal relationships, especially in hunter-gatherer cultures that shared their environment with big, potentially dangerous animals.
Carvings left behind by the Tunit , for example, suggest a belief that polar bears possessed a kind of personhood allowing them to communicate with humans; while some Inuit believed walruses could listen to humans talking about them and react accordingly. Today, as archaeologists like Hill and Matthew Betts shift their interpretation of the past to better reflect Indigenous worldviews, biologists too are shedding new light on whale behavior and biology that seems to confirm the traits Indigenous people have attributed to whales for more than 1, years.
Among them is Hal Whitehead, a professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia who argues that cetaceans have their own culture —a word typically reserved for human societies. Whitehead finds evidence for his theory in numerous recent studies, including one that shows bowhead whales in the North Pacific, off the Alaskan coast, and in the Atlantic Ocean near Greenland sing different songs, the way human groups might have different styles of music or linguistic dialects. Similarly, pods of resident killer whales living in the waters off south Vancouver Island greet each other with different behaviors than killer whales living off north Vancouver Island, despite the fact that the groups are genetically almost identical and have overlapping territories.
Plus, calves spend years with their mothers, developing the strong mother-offspring bonds that serve to transfer cultural information, and bowhead whales live long enough to accumulate the kind of environmental knowledge that would be beneficial to pass on to younger generations.
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We know this largely because of a harpoon tip that was found embedded in a bowhead in northern Alaska in Other beliefs, too, are proving less farfetched than they once sounded. Eventually, a Dutch scientist dissecting whale skulls proved the animals did, indeed, have the capacity to smell. Even the Yupik belief that beluga whales were once land-dwelling creatures is rooted in reality: some 50 million years ago, the ancestor of modern-day whales walked on land.
As if recalling this, whale fetuses briefly develop legs before losing them again.
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None of this suggests that whales freely give themselves to humans. With the dawn of the 20th century and the encroachment of Euro-Americans into the North, Indigenous whaling changed drastically. Whaling in the Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth Nations essentially ended in the s after commercial whalers hunted the gray whale to near extinction.
In Chukotka, Russian authorities in the s replaced community-based whaling with state-run whaling. In the s, the International Whaling Commission ordered a halt to subsistence bowhead whaling because US government scientists feared there were just 1, of the animals left. With the money, communities hired Western-trained scientists to corroborate traditional knowledge.
The scientists developed a new methodology that used hydrophones to count bowhead whales beneath the ice, rather than extrapolating the population based on a count of the visible bowheads passing by a single, ice-free locale. Their findings proved bowheads were far more numerous than the government had previously thought, and subsistence whaling was allowed to continue.
Elsewhere, too, whaling traditions have slowly come back to life. In , the Makah harvested their first whale in over 70 years. The Chukchi were allowed to hunt again in the s. Conservation groups have for months warned of the precarious state of 87 belugas, 11 killer whales and five walrus pups.
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