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Assessing the Distribution and Variability of Marine Mammals through Archaeology, Ancient DNA, and History in the North Atlantic.


Project start
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Type of project
Project theme
Society, economy and culture
Project topic
Culture & history

Project details

Science / project summary

This project seeks to understand prehistoric and historical Norse uses of whales, seals and walruses in the North Atlantic and Eastern Arctic over the course of the Middle Ages, from 800-1500 CE (Common Era). Evidence from Arctic and North Atlantic historical and literary sources and archaeological sites reveals frequent use of marine mammals by prehistoric hunters and scavengers and Norse settlers, but details about the uses of whale, seal, and walrus are unquantified, broad and approximate. These northern regions are critically important ecosystems to current North American economies and interests. They were home to the world's earliest whaling industries and support ongoing sealing and whaling traditions. However, we know almost nothing about the origins and scale of whale, seal, and walrus use in these once fertile waters. Given the complexity of marine food webs in regions like the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, reconstruction of preindustrial or 'pristine' maritime ecosystems is critical in modern restoration efforts and for the preservation and sustainable use of fish and mammal populations today. Without clear knowledge of ancient and early historic marine mammal populations, we cannot gauge what healthy marine mammal populations would look like today. The fourteen-member research team, from the disciplines of humanities, history, archaeology, biology, genetics and others, aims to investigate the deep history of whale, seal, and walrus use in the Eastern Arctic and North Atlantic. This research will span the first settlements of the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland in the Viking Age (beginning around 800 CE), through the Medieval Warm Period (circa 1000-1250), and concluding with the Little Ice Age at the end of the Middle Ages (1300-1500). In addition to assessing the social, cultural, and economic importance of marine mammal use among Norse populations, the research study uses cutting-edge genetic and chemical analyses to provide a far better understanding of marine mammal populations in the Arctic and North Atlantic before the major changes resulting from industrial-scale hunting beginning in the sixteenth century. Evidence from houses, burials, and trading sites, from current archaeological excavations and museum collections, as well as histories, sagas, maps, illuminated manuscripts and other traditional sources of knowledge, are combined with scientific approaches to ancient animal bones and the genetic stories that they can tell. This project will build interdisciplinary connections across the social and natural sciences, will bring together researchers and students from six countries and eleven academic institutions and museums, and will employ the most current technologies and scholarship in genetics, biology, digital humanities, and zooarchaeology. The research team hopes to uncover new evidence about the marine animals that populated medieval seas, and the manners in which medieval Icelanders, Greenlanders, and others encountered and exploited these mammals. The project team will produce scholarly articles, translations, new genetic and zooarchaeological data sets, will participate in academic conferences and public presentations, and will design both curricular and museum materials to communicate our results to a broader audience. Undergraduate and graduate students will be guided through transdisciplinary research collaborations in the US and abroad. Finally, the team scientists think that their results may also aid colleagues in the natural sciences in reconstruction of ancient seas, climates, animal populations, and environmental change, with direct application to major issues of future sustainability. This project seeks answers to fundamental questions about medieval marine mammal exploitation, focusing on Norse uses of whales, seals and walruses in the North Atlantic prior to 1500 CE. In a region dominated by charismatic Arctic megafauna, where modern industrial whaling was born and where current whaling and sealing attract global attention, the prehistory and early history of marine mammal use remain unclear in its scale and purpose. The researchers' transdisciplinary approach employs Local and Traditional Knowledge (LTK), digital humanities, environmental histories, and innovative technologies of genetic analysis to new and existing sea mammal archaeofaunal assemblages to produce a holistic long-term perspective on the social, cultural, and economic history of marine mammal use in medieval northern Europe. This research spans the first settlements of the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland in the Viking Age and the Medieval Climatic Optimum, through the Little Ice Age onset in the high Middle Ages and Early Modern periods. The length of the project survey period (+ 700 years) will result in samples across a broad range of time and space, which allows the science team to contextualize newly-generated aDNA marine mammal data across several documented periods of major climate change in the North Atlantic and Subarctic. The project will also provide a far better understanding of marine mammal dynamics in these regions prior to the major changes resulting from industrial-scale hunting impacts beginning in the sixteenth century. The project utilizes: 1) a new integration with the rich medieval written record for Iceland aided by digital and environmental humanities approaches; 2) a greatly expanded zooarchaeological database created since the International Polar Year (IPY) by the North Atlantic Biocultural Organization (NABO) research cooperative; 3) newly expanded capabilities in ancient DNA (aDNA) analysis, allowing species-level identification on a wide range of otherwise unidentifiable sea mammal bones; 4) new data management and visualization tools providing more effective cross disciplinary communication and wider public engagement through cooperation with the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NISDC) and NABO project management system; and 5) facilities for wide transdisciplinary dissemination of results through the Integrated History and Future of People on Earth (IHOPE) program as part of the Future Earth global change initiative. This project will build capacity for scientific collaboration and data management, dissemination, and visualization, while improving species-level identification, exceeding current capabilities of simple morphometric analysis or collagen fingerprinting of sea mammal bones from archaeological contexts and museum collections. In addition, it offers the promise to create important new bodies of evidence for a range of scholarly disciplines across a broad temporal and geographical series of case studies. Finally, the project's use of extant data sets - textual, archaeological, biological - may provide an innovative new model for transdisciplinary analysis of premodern marine mammal use that can be applied across the North Atlantic and circumpolar Arctic. The researchers hope to establish a historical baseline of marine mammal use that reveals a more complete economic and ecological portrait of the Norse North Atlantic. Through collaborations with North Pacific and Western Arctic colleagues, the research team's work will complete a circumpolar perspective of prehistoric and early historic marine mammal exploitation. By answering fundamental questions of marine mammal use, this research has the potential to provide context or evidence for lost genetic diversity among key marine species, now under pressure from both natural and human drivers of environmental change. This integrative approach, including collaboration of scholars and students from twelve institutions across North America and Europe, also provides new models and innovative methodologies for transdisciplinary research in the social sciences and humanities, with direct application to major issues of future sustainability.