Did ancient Romans whale the Mediterranean?

Blanche Robertson
July 11, 2018

Ancient Roman hunters may have precipitated the disappearance of grey and right whales from the Mediterranean, a study said Wednesday, suggesting commercial whaling is much older than we thought.

But the latest discovery of bones, identified as belonging to right and grey whales through DNA analysis, appear to challenge that timeline.

It is possible that both species could have been captured using small rowing boats and hand harpoons, methods used by medieval Basque whalers centuries later. "The Romans ate and talked about an enormous variety of fish and seafood, and if whale was widely exploited and exported, then it is strangely absent from many discussions".

Prior to the study, by an worldwide team of ecologists, archaeologists and geneticists, it was assumed that the Mediterranean Sea was outside of the historical range of the right and gray whale.

Co-author of the study Dr Camilla Speller, from the University of York, said: "These new molecular methods are opening whole new windows into past ecosystems".

In the first century A.D., Pliny the Elder famously wrote about orcas (also called killer whales, though they are in the dolphin family) attacking whales and their calves in the Bay of Cádiz, near the Strait of Gibraltar- the entry point from the Atlantic Ocean into the Mediterranean that lies between Africa and Europe.

The Gibraltar region was the centre of a massive fish-processing industry in Roman times.

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The bones were found among the remains of ancient Roman fish salting plants. These bones came from five sites - four around the Strait of Gibraltar and one site on the coast of north-west Spain, three of which were linked to the Roman fish-salting and fish-sauce making industries.

The presence of large whales along the shores of the Roman Empire suggests that the Romans would have had access to grey and right whales.

They add that Romans would not have had the technology to hunt whale species found in the region today - sperm or fin whales which live further out at sea - meaning evidence of whaling might not have been something archeologists and historians were looking out for.

People have been harvesting whales for thousands of years around the world in indigenous cultures, but the Basques were thought to be the first to pursue whales for economic gain on an industrial scale.

The North Atlantic right whale has been driven to near extinction after centuries of whaling, while the grey whale has completely disappeared from the North Atlantic and is now restricted to the North Pacific.

"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 Dr Ana Rodrigues, researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research. While there are a handful of historical reports of right whales cropping up in the Mediterranean, the only reliable grey whale sighting in the region was in 2010 and is thought to have been a misguided individual that turned up from the Pacific. "It makes you wonder what else we have forgotten".

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