In the far north of Alaska, archaeologists have unearthed the skull of a beast that may explain indigenous stories of “king bears". The cranium, found protruding out of an eroding cliff, once belonged to a polar bear, but one bigger than anything usually seen today.
Reported on the website Western Digs, the bear skull measures roughly 40 centimeters (16 inches) from the nose to the back of the cranium, and while the researchers don’t know what its exact size was, it likely would have been huge. The animal, or others of its ilk, may have once inspired the tales of giant 12-foot polar bears stalking the ice that are still told in some native communities to this day. Yet there are aspects of this massive find that don’t quite fit with most modern bears found today.
“The front part of the skull, from roughly the eyes forward, is like that of typical polar bears,” Dr Anne Jensen told Western Digs. “The back part of the skull is noticeably longer than other bear skulls to which we were able to compare it. One of those skulls was from quite a large bear, and the front part of the two skulls were not that different in length, but the back parts were strikingly different.”
The find, uncovered in 2014 at a site called Walapka, not far from Utqiaġvik, has been dated to around 1,300 years old, and so has been dubbed “The Old One” by the archaeologists. It displays an unusually elongated back of the skull, which was also strangely narrow and strikingly different to typical modern-day bears.
The odd-shaped skull was then compared to over 300 other polar bear skulls kept at the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North. Interestingly, they found a few others in the collection that also showed comparable differences in the shape of the cranium. This suggests that the skull of The Old One may not be as unique as first thought, but that there may be a previously unrecognized subspecies of polar bear treading across the tundra.
Jensen even believes that there are “certainly” other bears the size of The Old One still out there, citing accounts of massive polar bears by indigenous groups recorded by ethnographers, particularly from the Inuvialuit of the Northwest Territories who talk of "weasel bears" and the people of St Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait who recount tales of “king bears”. But interestingly, in the region where the skull was found, no stories of giant bears remain.
The plan now is to do some DNA testing on the skull to see how it compares with modern polar bears, as well as analyze the giant bear's teeth for any more clues to its origin.