When archaeologists excavated a Scottish Iron Age site called the Cairns in 2016, they discovered a hollowed-out whale vertebra filled with a trio of unexpected objects: a human jaw bone and the remains of two newborn lambs. Dated to about the mid-2nd century A.D., the vessel was propped near the entrance of a broch, or type of roundhouse, and held in place by a pair of red deer antlers and a large grinding stone.
“All this treatment appears to have been part of the measures employed to perform an act of closure of the broch,” reads a statement from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.
A new DNA analysis conducted by researchers at the institute adds a new piece to this perplexing puzzle. As Huw Williams reports for BBC News, the team’s preliminary findings suggest the bone belongs to a fin whale. Given the fact that fin whales are the second largest whale species on Earth, UHI archaeologist Martin Carruthers says this determination may help archaeologists address a much-debated question: Did Iron Age Scots actively hunt the massive whales, or did they simply make the most of animals swept ashore?
Per the press release, the team—made up of Carruthers, Western Carolina University’s Vicki Szabo, St. Mary’s University’s Brenna Frasier and UHI’s Ingrid Mainland—analyzed the fin whale bone as part of a larger project exploring the use of whale bones in the western Atlantic over the last 1,000 years. Earlier this year, the researchers tested relevant finds from both the Cairns and Mine Howe, a separate archaeological site on Scotland’s Orkney Islands.
The whale remains found among the roughly 100 marine animal bones unearthed at the Cairns constitute one of the world’s largest troves of prehistoric whale bones. DNA analysis shows the bones came from larger species including sperm, humpback and minke whales, as well as smaller species like dolphins and porpoises.
“[That assemblage is] what you'd expect, I suppose, if you saw them as being quite opportunistic in terms of what came across their path,” Carruthers tells Williams. “But the other thing is, there are preferences for certain types. And that may indicate that they are being a bit more discerning and picky.”
The suggestion that Iron Age Scots hunted whales isn’t completely farfetched: After all, rock art found at the Bangu-Dae archaeological site in South Korea and dated to 6,000 B.C. depicts harpoon-wielding humans in pursuit of sperm whales, right whales and humpbacks. And as National Geographic points out, people in Norway and Japan may have started hunting whales as early as 4,000 years ago. The Inuit and Basque also boast long-held whaling traditions.
Still, the team notes in the press release, it remains unlikely that Iron Age Orkney villagers were actually capable of taking down a fin whale. The animal can grow to a length of more than 85 feet and swim at speeds of up to 28 miles per hour; as the researchers write, “The fin whale was only really hunted in large numbers [after] the explosive harpoon was invented [in the mid-19th century].”
Moving forward, the team hopes to investigate how the Cairns community utilized the whales obtained. According to BBC News’ Williams, additional DNA analysis could reveal relationships between butchered whales, or perhaps even identify scattered bones as the remains of a single animal.