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Genetics: Whale on the menu for ancient Greenlanders

Nature Communications

November 9, 2016

Whales and other large mammals played a more important role in the prehistoric Greenlandic diet than previously thought, according to a study published in Nature Communications this week.

Humans have migrated into Greenland numerous times over the past 4,500 years and our knowledge of their culture is based mainly on traditional archaeological analysis of preserved fossils. Frederik Seersholm and colleagues identify gaps in this fossil record by analysis of DNA extracted from archaeological sediments dating from as far back as around 2000 BC. In particular, while whale bones are rare among fossils from these sediments, DNA evidence suggests that bowhead whales and other large animals like caribou and walrus were important to the survival of people in Greenland around 4,000 years ago. The lack of whale bones found in the investigated sites may suggest that whale flesh, skin and fat may have been scavenged from carcasses found or hunted elsewhere, the authors propose.

It was thought that the Thule culture, who migrated into Greenland around 1200-1400 AD were the first to exploit and hunt whales extensively, mainly due to a lack of evidence of weapons suitable for whaling prior to this. However, it seems that exploitation of this plentiful marine resource was commonplace, and this could extend to other early cultures.

doi: 10.1038/ncomms13389

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