Romans May Have Hunted Whales to Extinction in Their Home Waters

New analysis suggests that right and gray whales were not only once present in the Mediterranean Sea but likely common in the region

Fish Factory
A Roman fish processing factory in the city of Baelo Claudia D. Bernal-Casasola, University of Cadiz

Gray whales are only found in the Pacific Ocean these days, and the few remaining North Atlantic right whales hang out along the coast of the U.S. But before whaling devastated their populations, both species roamed the seas more widely, and a new study suggests they were even present in the Mediterranean Sea.

As Ruth Schuster at Haaretz reports, bones of both cetaceans were found near Gibraltar, indicating that the whales ranged much further afield, even using the Mediterranean Sea as a calving ground. What’s more, the bones suggest that the Romans may have participated in commercial whaling, more than 1,000 years before the Basques did off the coasts of the Gulf of Biscay in the 11th century.

According to a press release, ecologists believed that the Mediterranean was outside the historical range of gray and right whales. However, when an international team of scientists tested the DNA of bones and collagen found at five ancient fish-salting and fish-processing factories around Gibraltar, they found that both species, as well as a dolphin and elephant, were present and likely common in the region. Their findings are presented in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“Our study shows that these two species were once part of the Mediterranean marine ecosystem and probably used the sheltered basin as a calving ground,” says co-author Camilla F. Speller of the University of York. “The findings contribute to the debate on whether, alongside catching large fish such as tuna, the Romans had a form of whaling industry or if perhaps the bones are evidence of opportunistic scavenging from beached whales along the coast line.”

Shuster reports that some of the confusion over whether Romans hunted whales or not has to do with language. The Greek word “ketos” and the Latin word “cetus” both mean “big fish” and can also refer to whales and other creatures like large turtles and sharks. So it’s never been clear from texts whether Romans hunted whales or not.

And finding whale bones in the archaeological record is harder than one might assume. “Whale bones are difficult to identify because they are often fragmented,” lead author Ana S. L. Rodrigues of the French National Centre for Scientific Research tells Schuster. She adds that while museum reference collections generally allow researchers to make anatomical comparisons to identify bones, few museum collections have complete whale skeletons due to their size. In this case, the team used molecular techniques to identify the whale bones down to their species.

Whales, including massive Humpbacks and Fin whales, are still found in the Mediterranean basin, but humans didn’t develop the technology to hunt these massive beasts until the 1600 and 1700s. However, the Romans would have had the skills to hunt right and gray whales, which hug the coast. The researchers hypothesize that the animals likely came into warmer shallower bays in the region to give birth to their calves, making them easy targets for fishermen.

In fact, there is some documentary evidence that coastal whales once populated the area. “We can finally understand a 1st-century description by the famous Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, of killer whales attacking whales and their new-born calves in the Cadiz bay,” co-author Anne Charpentier of the University of Montpellier says. “It doesn’t match anything that can be seen there today, but it fits perfectly with the ecology if right and gray whales used to be present.”

The assumption is that human hunting eventually wiped out the populations of the two whale species in the region. It’s possible that people were hunting whales in pre-Roman and post-Roman times as well; Schuster reports that there are remains of hundreds of fish processing and salting stations around Gibraltar, and that the industry lasted 1,000 years, from 400 B.C.E. to around 500 C.E. While there’s no evidence that the whale meat was salted and used in trade, it’s a possibility.

The fact that bones were found on land is significant, since whales are often processed on the water. “Whales are considered archaeologically invisible because so few bones are transported from shore to site,” whaling historian Vicki Szabo of Western Carolina University tells Nicola Davis at the Guardian, “so I think in that context this concentration of species that they have is meaningful.”

Erica Rowan, a classical archaeologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, however, isn’t so sure the Romans were industrial-scale whalers. Whales might have been common in Cadiz, but she says there’s no evidence they were hunted or consumed in the rest of the Med. One piece of evidence? The Romans were insatiable foodies and wrote about all the crazy things they ate, including pheasant brains and flamingo tongues. If they were munching on delicious whale meat, it’s likely they would have made the ancient equivalent of a Facebook post about it.

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