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Arctic Science Journeys
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Harpoon Tips Offer Clues to Age of Bowhead Whales

STORY: Three years ago, Eskimo whale hunters in Barrow made a surprising discovery. They found two stone harpoon points embedded in the thick blubber of a bowhead whale they'd harvested. The discovery is intriguing to scientists because hunters stopped using stone points about 100 years ago. James Mead is the Curator of Marine Mammals at the Smithsonian Institution. He says the points offer clues to how long Bowhead whales live.

"If you are willing to accept what the archeologists tell you about when the last time these points should have been in use, then it tells you that the whales that were caught with those points were at least that old."

Alaska's Inupiaq Eskimos have hunted whales in the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean for thousands of years. The hunters in this year's harvest will use steel harpoon points, but prior to about 1870, hunters used two types of stone points -- one made by chipping slate to form a point, and the other made of slate ground and polished to a razor edge. Mike Lewis is the archeology collections manager at the University of Alaska Museum, and an expert in Eskimo harpoon points.

"The chip stone technology was used all throughout the Bering Strait, and ground slate was used all throughout the Bering Strait as well. The ones we have in our collections here at the University of Alaska Museum are 3 to 4 inches long and maybe 2 to 2 1/2 inches wide."

Lewis says the hunter's strategy would be to harpoon a whale several times before delivering the final blow.

"They'd sometimes use two or three harpoons in order to attach floats on the animal to slow it down and tire it. Then there would be the killing blow with a long narrow lance. The attempt would be to strike it in the heart and kill it."

But sometimes the wooden harpoon shafts would break off and the whale would escape with the stone points still lodged in its thick blubber. Five stone points have been found in bowhead whales in Alaska over the last 20 years. The points do not prove the exact age of the whales, but they do show that bowheads live a lot longer than most scientists previously thought. For Arctic Science Journeys, this is Debra Damron.

Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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