Giants of the Deep: A Prehistory of Whaling

July 14, 2021

 “Whales have been evolving for thirty million years. To our one million. A sperm whale’s brain is seven times the size of mine… The great size of his body has little to do with the great size of his brain, other than as a place to keep it. What if the catalyst or the key to understanding creation lay somewhere in the immense mind of the whale? … Some species go for months without eating anything. Just completely idle.. So they have this incredible mental apparatus and no one has the least notion what they do with it. The most logical supposition, based on physiological and ecological evidence, is that they contemplate the universe… Suppose God came back from wherever it is he’s been and asked us smilingly if we’d figured it out yet. Suppose he wanted to know if it had finally occurred to us to ask the whale. And then he sort of looked around and he said, “By the way, where are the whales?”

The above quote from the writer Cormac McCarthy neatly sums up our schizophrenic relationship with the giants of the ocean. We recognise that whales, dolphins, orcas and other related mammals are highly intelligent and social animals. They have been honoured and worshipped for millennia, and yet we seem driven by a deep bloodlust to eradicate them. The thrill and danger, not to mention the prestige of hunting a whale is irresistable. In almost no other way can man pit his daring and bravery against nature, against Leviathan. I want to track this strange oscillating vision, of whales as powerful spiritual beings but also a target of relentless persecution.

Starting with the earliest prehistoric evidence for whaling, I want to explore how whales ended up on the verge of extinction in the 19th century, while also paying homage to the tremendous courage and fortitude of those men who endured brutal and lethal conditions to ultimately convert these stewards of the ocean into consumer goods. Human nature is not endlessly malleable, and it contains all sorts of destructive impulses, but we would do well to  turn this on those destroying our seas and not on those who call it home.

The earliest potential evidence for whaling dates back to the northern European Mesolithic. As the sea levels rose with the dawn of the Holocene and the melting of the glacial ice, the landscape for European hunter-gatherers changed dramatically. Their diet altered to make use of the abundant seafood – shellfish, seals, fish, eels and larger mammals. Whale bones have been discovered on Danish Ertebølle sites, alongside their dugout canoes and harpoons. Most researchers are skeptical that they were able to hunt whales at sea from these vessels and were likely scavenging beached whales, but it nevertheless potentially marks the beginning of the human drive to hunt at sea. By the time of the Neolithic whaling seems to have advanced around the world. In South Korea, the Bangudae rock depictions of hunting at sea are widely assumed to represent whaling activity, circa 6000 BC. At Jortveit in Norway, the bones of whale, bluefin tuna and orca have been recovered, along with numerous harpoon heads and flint tools. In North America the evidence for whale hunting seems to begin around 1000 BC. These settled permanent camps became ideal places to develop more sophisticated and specialised forms of subsistence, including deep sea fishing and hunting. The methods used at this time are assumed to be similar to known communities who still hunt whales or did so in the recent past: attaching harpoons to inflatable objects, known as drogues, or driving a group of whales towards the shore in an attempt to beach them. Harpoons made from bone and antler are a common find from the Upper Palaeolithic onwards, presumably for hunting larger animals and later seals.

Polynesian whaling was a mixture of scavenging, in the case of the Maori, and of active drives and hunting, in the case of the Tuamotu islanders. These drives would involve a kapea, a ‘whale master’, who was able to call and direct the hunt. The hunters would drum on the sides of their canoes to attract whales, porpoises and sharks before the kapea guided the animals into a lagoon or bay to be speared. Legend has it that the kapea was so attuned to the whales that he could sit on their heads and back while guiding them to their deaths. In another part of the world, the Inuit and polar peoples have a long tradition of whaling as mentioned above, indeed Palaeo-Inuit sites in Greenland show evidence of people eating bowhead whales as far back as 4000 BC, almost certainly scavenged. Pacific Eskimo peoples developed a sophisticated hunting system using kayaks and poison tipped slate darts, fired from an atlatl (spear thrower). The monkshood based poison would cause local paralysis in the whales fins and they would drown, to be washed ashore a few days later. Ownership was claimed by the specific signature of the slate dart. These hunting technologies were fiercely guarded and were reserved for an elite group of hunters. A number of species were hunted across the polar archipelagos – grey, humpback and bowhead in particular. Every part of the whale was prized, in particular the valuable oil that could be rendered. Prior to European colonisation, the only form of fuel the Inuit had was animal fat and it was burned in stone lamps to provide small amounts of heat and light. This tiny heat source was crucial for melting snow into drinking water.

Moving into the medieval era, whaling was determined by the technology of the boat and the skill of the whalers. One of the first areas to become specialised at whaling was the Basque Country, who started sending out boats in the 11th century. Over time they moved into the English Channel, out into the North Sea and began whaling around Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland. British whaling prior to the 16th century was limited, with the Crown claiming beached whales. As open water naval technology improved, the option to send out boats into the Atlantic and Scandinavian territorial waters increased. The creation of the Muscovy and later South Sea companies spurred commercial interest in whaling, with fleets recruiting skilled sailors from across northern Europe, most notably from the Netherlands. As the Industrial Revolution exploded, the demand for whale oil in manufacturing, lighting and textile production rose dramatically. Astonishingly sperm whale oil was still being used for automobile production in the US as late as the 1970s.

The methods of hunting became increasingly more mechanised and dangerous for the crew. The whale was typically harpooned, either from a smaller whaleboat or later from the main ship itself. The harpoon was thrown into the whale with the force of a man’s arm, or fired into the whale with a mounted harpoon gun. This role was difficult, dangerous and often had an aura of superstition attached to it, most famously depicted by Queequeg in Melville’s Moby Dick. The whale would react violently, thrashing and lashing out with its tail and head. The whaleboat was liable to be smashed or sunk. The whale would then attempt to dive and drag the boat along, whipping the harpoon line which would need to be let out rapidly to avoid the boat being dragged underwater. Once the animal was exhausted it was killed, with lances, explosive harpoons and other similar weapons, before being towed or hauled onboard a larger vessel to be processed. This unpleasant and dirty job required multiple shifts of six-hour work days, butchering the meat, draining and rendering oil, separating bone from flesh. The prize objects from different whales included – the baleen plate, used for carriage springs, umbrellas and corsets, among other objects, the blubber, removed in a process called ‘flensing’ and rendered for sale, and spermaceti, the odourless oil from the head of the sperm whale, used for cosmetics and industry. Today a modern Japanese whaler can process an animal in around 30 minutes, combining mechanical and human labour.

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It’s hard to pinpoint with any accuracy what the long term effects of millennia of whaling have had on their populations. Historical whaling, from the 17th century onwards, had a devastating effect on whale numbers. In many instances, such as the eastern North Atlantic gray whale, they were driven to local extinction and pushed towards a critically low number of individuals. The Antarctic blue whale has still not recovered, nor has the North Pacific right whale, whose numbers were decimated from 30,000 individuals in 1840 to only around 300 individuals today, the vast majority of which were taken in the single decade from 1840-1850. A 2004 paper looking at the impacts of the Basque whaling industry in the 15th century concluded that a huge drop in the right whale and bowhead whale population occurred during this century. The effects of the removal of such a huge number of key species is also under investigation. The almost total loss of the Greenland right whale, around 46,000 individuals, has freed up an estimated 3.5 million tonnes of krill, providing a boom for seabirds and fish. Similarly the loss of a number of Antarctic whales has resulted in a surge of seabirds, penguins and seals. Probably the greatest ecosystem change from the loss of whales is their capacity for moving nutrients around the oceans. Their faeces and dead bodies both move and liberate crucial elements of sea food webs. Blue whale faeces contains 10 million times the iron concentration compared to the surrounding sea water, prompting phytoplankton blooms. So much carbon and nitrogen is moved through the oceans by whale migrations, deaths and births, that it is referred to as the ‘whale pump’ or the ‘whale conveyer belt’. Even their bodies, falling into the depths, provide a huge banquet of resources for sea creatures, with potentially over 100 specialised species dedicated to scavenging from their carcasses. As one of the last surviving families of megafauna, we are able to study the impact of large animals on food webs – counter intuitively, although krill stocks temporarily increase when whales are removed, over the long term krill has yet to recover to its pre-industrial whaling mass.

It’s hard to be recklessly optimistic about the future of whales, with their lives dependent on the state of the world’s oceans. With the numerous threats coming from overfishing, coral bleaching, plastic and other pollution and the collapse of the marine food webs, it looks bleak for all sea life. The irony of living in late modernity is the explosion of scientific knowledge about the natural world, while the same forces also commit it to extinction. We know now that whales are highly intelligent, sensitive and deeply social. We have realised how much we don’t know about them, how far and where they migrate, how they communicate and pass on information. We’ve pitted ourselves against them now for millennia and now possess the technology to eradicate them if we wanted, but something about them still captivates and grabs us. Their slow calming nature, massive yet peaceful frame, it’s not hard to see why various groups around the world consider them as human ancestors or progenitors. They seem more likely to possess a soul than many other animals, perhaps this is why we’ve been drawn to hunting them over the ages. For traditional hunting peoples, the animal isn’t just a creature to impose your will onto, but part of a web of contractual obligation. If a hunter is to be successful he must ultimately persuade the animal to let itself be killed, in exchange for the proper observation of taboos and rituals. Any break in the contract and negative repercussions will follow. So maybe Cormac McCarthy was right – there are secrets in the mind of the whale, being kept under lock and key until we’re ready.


Teaser photo credit: By Unknown author – Ellis, R. 1994. Monsters of the Sea. Robert Hale Ltd., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1405188Unsplash

Stone Age Herbalist

I'm an archaeology researcher working on the origins of the agricultural revolution and prehistoric technology. To find solutions to our collective madness - mass extinctions, pollution and societal alienation, we need to look to the past. I'm politically homeless but interested in bioregionalism, localism and decentralisation.

Tags: ocean health, sixth great extinction, Whales, whaling industry