A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Origins of Whaling | Chukotka Peninsula, Russia
Volume 62 Number 1, January/February 2009
In the 1950s, Alaskan archaeologists found large whale bones in a cluster of 3,000-year-old semi-subterranean houses at the site of Cape Krusenstern on the Bering Sea. The people who lived there were quickly dubbed the Old Whaling Culture, and were thought to be the earliest whalers in the world. There was just one problem. "The evidence for whaling at the site is enigmatic at best," says University of Alaska Museum curator of archaeology Daniel Odess. "The bones could be from whales that washed up onshore. Artifacts used unambiguously for whaling, like very large harpoons, don't show up in the archaeological record until 1,000 years later."
Just how the people of the Old Whaling Culture made their living has always been an open question. So when archaeologist Sergei Gusev recently discovered a village on Russia's Chukotka Peninsula that seemed to belong to the Old Whaling Culture tradition, Odess eagerly accepted his invitation to help excavate it. While traveling to the remote site, Odess and his team fell into a discussion of what kind of evidence would definitively show that the Old Whaling Culture actually lived up to its name. "We were waiting for weather to clear at the airport and I asked my intern Tim Williams what he thought," says Odess. The Fairbanks high-school student and Yup'ik Eskimo looked up from his book, and replied simply: "A picture."
Three weeks later, on the last day of the field season, Russian archaeologist Nikolai Most was sweeping up the floor of an ancient house at the site when he uncovered a 20-inch-long walrus tusk carved with a seal, a bear, and an unmistakable image of people hunting a whale from a boat. The tusk dates to around 1000 B.C.
"I thought Tim was being a smart aleck, but he knew exactly what he was talking about," says Odess. "There's no question the carving is the earliest evidence for whaling."Share