Eskimo hunters catch up with whale that eluded their ancestors

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The Independent Online

Inupiat Eskimos hunting off the Alaskan coast have discovered a weapon fragment embedded in the neck of a whale, revealing that it survived a similar hunt by their ancestors more than 100 years ago.

The hunting party caught the 50-ton bowhead whale from an umiaq, a large vessel made from sealskin. They were butchering it with a chainsaw when they found a 3 1/2-inch arrow-shaped projectile embedded in its blubber.

The weapon had notches on the side indicating it came from an Inupiat village. And this has enabled researchers to estimate the whale's age at between 115 and 130 years old.

"It's unusual to find old things like that in whales, and I knew immediately that it was quite old by its shape," said Craig George, a wildlife specialist based in Alaska who went to investigate soon after the lance fragment was found.

Alaskan hunters traditionally carved notches into the lance heads they used in the 19th century to indicate ownership of the whale. The oldest any whale can live is thought to be about 200 years, but the age calculation is difficult as it involves measuring amino acids in the eye lenses.

"This is really exciting," John Bockstoce, a whaling expert who spent 10 years hunting with the Inupiat, said. "No other finding has allowed us to date a whales age with such precision."

The lance fragment, which had lodged between the whale's neck and shoulder blade, is believed to have been made in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the centre of the 19th-century US whaling industry. Bowhead - or Greenland whales, as they are known in Europe - were prized by Paris fashion houses as a source of baleen, the comb-like membrane many whales use to filter feed plankton and krill. Corset and hat makers used them until the fashions changed in 1909. The market for baleen collapsed and, along with it, the entire whaling industry.

Mr Bockstoce thinks the lance dates back to the 1890s and was transported from New Bedford to Alaska, where it was traded to Inupiat hunters. He believes that a hunting party would have shot the whale with a heavy shoulder gun. The metal cylinder of the lance had an explosive charge with a time-delay fuse set to explode seconds after it had entered the whale's blubber.

"The device exploded and probably injured the whale or annoyed him, but it hit him in a non-lethal place," Mr Bockstoce said. "He couldn't have been that bothered if he lived for another 100 years."

The lance which finally killed the 49ft male is almost identical to the fragments found in its blubber.

The bowhead whale has been hunted to to the brink of extinction. However, Burton "Atqaan" Rexford, a whaling captain, explained that the whales are essential for his people's survival. "The Eskimo have been called 'the people of the ice whale' because without the bowhead we would not exist," he said.

The Inupiat Eskimos are a distinct ethnic grouping who encompass the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, Alaska and Siberia. They have hunted bowhead whales for at least 2,500 years and take about 60 bowheads a year from the Bering Sea under special licence from the International Whaling Commission.