An analysis of mysterious bones from 2,000 years ago suggests that two species of whale, now confined to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, once thrived in the Mediterranean Sea. What’s more, the age and location of the bones pose an intriguing question: did the Romans have a flourishing whaling industry that we know nothing about?
A team of researchers looked at 10 ancient bones, all believed to be from whales, to try to determine what species they belonged to. The bones came from five Roman or pre-Roman archaeological sites – one on Spain’s north-western coast and four around the Strait of Gibraltar. The findings are published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The researchers used a combination of DNA barcoding and collagen fingerprinting to determine which species the bones belonged to. Not all the bones turned out to be from whales, for example one belonged to a dolphin and another to an elephant, perhaps an animal used in war.
However, the team identified three gray whale bones and three North Atlantic right whale bones. What’s exciting about this find is that these two species do not live in the Mediterranean, but now we know they must have done long ago.
The researchers suggest that these whales likely migrated to the warm coastal waters of the Mediterranean to give birth and nurse their calves after feeding in cooler waters.
Today’s North Atlantic right whales are confined to small pockets of the North Atlantic. Thanks to ship collisions, fishing gear entanglement, and whaling – particularly between the 13th and 17th centuries – only 300-450 animals remain today. Gray whales, on the other hand, were decimated by whaling a little more recently, over the last 300-400 years. The North Atlantic population is extinct and the Western North Pacific population is critically endangered, however, the Eastern North Pacific group is slowly recovering its numbers. Sadly, whaling is still practiced today by a handful of countries, such as Norway and Japan.
But were whales hunted by the Romans long before the first Medieval whalers started to pursue them?
Interestingly, Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist, wrote of whales calving off the coast of Cadiz in Spain. Now we know he may well have been referring to long-lost gray and right whales. He also wrote of killer whales attacking these creatures and their calves, so the loss of the larger whales likely affected the presence of orcas in the region too.
The whale bones were found close to Roman fish-salting and fish sauce-making factories, suggesting that they could well have been hunted in the area 2,000 years ago. The fact that gray and right whales tend to hang around the coast when calving is important, as it would have made them more accessible. The Romans wouldn’t have had the technological advancements needed to reach whales further out to sea, like the sperm and fin whales found in Mediterranean waters today.
However, as classical archaeologist Dr Erica Rowan told The Guardian, if the Romans were hunting whales at an industrial scale, it is likely that we would know, particularly since we've learned so much about what this civilization ate. “We would have more evidence,” she said, “perhaps not in the zooarchaeological record but in the ceramic record and in the literary sources.”
So, whether the Romans hunted whales is still a bit of a mystery. Perhaps they did so on a small scale, since food and fuel were already so abundant. What we do know is that we were wrong about the historical distribution of two iconic whale species.
"It seems incredible that we could have lost and then forgotten two large whale species in a region as well-studied as the Mediterranean,” said lead study author Dr Ana Rodriguez. “It makes you wonder what else we have forgotten."