January 29, 2013

Whale remains reinforce the notion of Magdalenian being linked to sea mammal predation

First it was the whale bone spear point of Isturitz (Basque Country), then the isotope evidence of sea mammal based diet of a Magdalenian individual from Kendric Cave (Wales) and now direct evidence of whale remains in the cave of Nerja (Andalusia). The evidence mounts up for a quasi-Inuit lifestyle of at least some people of the Magdalenian culture of late Upper Paleolithic Europe.

Esteban Álvarez Fernández et al., Occurrence of whale barnacles in Nerja Cave (Málaga, Southern Spain): indirect evidence of whale consumption by humans in the Upper Magdalenian. Quaternary International 2013. Pay per viewLINK [doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2013.01.014]

Abstract

A total of 167 plates of two whale barnacle species (Tubicinella majorLamarck, 1802 and Cetopirus complanatus (Mörch, 1853)) have been found in the Upper Magdalenian layers of Nerja Cave, Mina Chamber (Maro, Málaga, southern Spain). This is the first occurrence of these species in a prehistoric site. Both species are specific to the southern right whale Eubalena australis, today endemic in the Southern Hemisphere. Because of Antarctic sea-ice expansion during the Last Glacial Period, these whales could have migrated to the Northern Hemisphere, and reached southern Spain. Whale barnacles indicate that maritime-oriented forager human groups found stranded whales on the coast and, because of the size and weight of the large bones, transported only certain pieces (skin, blubber and meat) to the caves where they were consumed.

The barnacles
According to the authors, this is the first case of consumption of whale meat and blubber ever documented in Europe. 

The hearth where the remains were found is dated to c. 14,000 years ago. 

Previous evidence from this prolific Andalusian cave have previously informed of consumption of seafood and fish, along with rabbits and the occasional goat, a tradition that dates to Neanderthal times in that region. 

A perplexing curiosity is that one of the whale kinds identified is the southern right whale, which was not known to have lived so far north at all (its main habitat is the Antarctic seas with some extension towards Brazil and the Mozambique Strait). I wonder if it is a case of misidentification and the species is either the North Atlantic right whale or an extinct relative of both.

Sources: Materia[es], Pileta[es].


PS- And what was the blubber used for (besides eating)? Our friend David Sánchez coincidentally just published two successive and quite interesting articles (in Spanish) at his blog on the lamps of the Upper Paleolithic: 1st part, 2nd part.

A particularly beautiful lamp from Lascaux (Dordogne)


Update (Jan 29): another finding of whale consumption in Magdalenian contexts unknown to me until now (h/t David) is from Las Caldas (Asturias). One of the two co-researchers is the same as the lead author of the Nerja paper → direct PDF link.


Update (Feb 22): David again added more interesting information on the matter of possible whaling in the Magdalenian period by pointing us to Colchón Rodríguez & Álvarez Fernández 2008, where they discuss (in Spanish) the presence of sea mammal remains in the cave of Las Caldas (Asturias): a seal tooth (pierced as to be part of a necklace or similar decoration), a pilot whale tooth (only initially worked), a sperm whale tooth (fully sculpted into low reliefs of whale and bison) and also several whale and other sea mammal bones used for tool-making (they made spear points on whale bone, as was documented years ago for Isturitz in the same period) and some mollusks, notably the shell of a whale barnacle (Coronula diadema).

Las Caldas (locator map) is some 20 Km. inland nowadays, in the Magdalenian period maybe 30 Km. or so. The whale barnacle suggests that whale meat was moved all that distance from the coast.

10 comments:

  1. "The evidence mounts up for a quasi-Inuit lifestyle of at least some people of the Magdalenian culture of late Upper Paleolithic Europe".

    While I don't deny the very real possibility that the Magdalenians were efficient boaters the abstract specifically states:

    "Whale barnacles indicate that maritime-oriented forager human groups found stranded whales on the coast"

    "I wonder if it is a case of misidentification and the species is either the North Atlantic right whale or an extinct relative of both".

    You could be correct with that second option. Whales were hunted to near extinction so we don't know what was around at the time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, of course it could be mere scavenging but the growing aboundance of sea-mammal consumption in all the coastal (and even inland) range of Magdalenian culture, coupled with the overly aboundant proto-harpoons (which best serve sea mammal hunting purposes) make the isolated scavenging hypothesis quite unlikely in my opinion.

      Delete
  2. Whales do wander. A Pacific gray whale was sighted off Israel in 2010:

    http://news.discovery.com/earth/global-warming/gray-whale-spotted-on-wrong-side-of-world.htm

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In addition in that time climate was not just a lot different (colder) but also it was subject apparently to many abrupt changes. But still I find it quite a bit strange.

      Delete
  3. Very interesting news about the sea resources in Upper Paleolithic; i'm trying to read more information and i found a paper maybe is interesting for you; the paper talk about Las Caldas Cave,Asturias, and there are a whale tooth, and crustacean who name is Coronula diadema (a fragment of a calcareous skeleton)--Their finding tells us that the whale meat was carried to the site, because it is not possible to detach the meat uncut crustacean.

    This is the link

    http://www.aranzadi-zientziak.org/fileadmin/docs/Munibe/2008047066AA.pdf

    Thanks for link the articles of upper paleolithic lamps :).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good finding. I did not know that one. Thanks.

      Delete
  4. Very interesting news about the sea resources in Upper Paleolithic; i'm trying to read more information and i found a paper maybe is interesting for you; the paper talk about Las Caldas Cave,Asturias, and there are a whale tooth, and crustacean who name is Coronula diadema (a fragment of a calcareous skeleton)--Their finding tells us that the whale meat was carried to the site, because it is not possible to detach the meat uncut crustacean.

    This is the link

    http://www.aranzadi-zientziak.org/fileadmin/docs/Munibe/2008047066AA.pdf

    Thanks for link the articles of upper paleolithic lamps :).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorry, David, this most interesting comment got stuck in the comment moderation waiting queue and I did not notice until today. I have updated the entry with the content of that quite interesting paper. Thanks.

      Delete
  5. "coupled with the overly aboundant proto-harpoons (which best serve sea mammal hunting purposes) make the isolated scavenging hypothesis quite unlikely in my opinion".

    Good point (excuse the pun).

    ReplyDelete
  6. "PS- And what was the blubber used for (besides eating)?"

    heh, i was wondering about lamps when i got to the PS.

    ReplyDelete

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