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Monday, April 28, 2008

Magdalenian and Inuit harpoons

This post has been largely inspired by A. Steenhuyse, of Anthrosite blog. Some days ago, I posted on his most intriguing mention that some Magdalenian artifacts of Isturitze cave (Low Navarre, Basque Country) were made of whale bones and that these bones were best quality to create tools that would bear impacts.

Then I wondered wether this could mean active whaling, like Inuits used to do with nothing but stone age tools. And this issue got me intrigued enough as to ask Alexandre about its likehood. And while he doesn't have a defined opinion, he has given me a most valuable piece of info that I would have probably never realized on my own: certain inuit harpoons are VERY similar to the magdalenians ones (the composite ones with detachable parts).

Bingo! Sure that there is not yet enough evidence in form of seal or whale remains but if the Isturitze ones have been in a museum for so long without anybody noticing that they were whale bones, it's possible that many others have equally remained unnoticed elsewhere. Also most coastal sites are now underwater anyhow. But the big question is, what could be those Magdalenian harpoons used for if not for seal (and inccidentally whale) hunting? They don't seem ideal for land hunting, for what spears or arrows (and traps) would be more effective, they wouldn't be of much use for fishing, as they knew of fishing hooks since the Solutrean period. What else could be the overabundant Magdalenian detachable harpoons be for?

Certainly the Bay of Biscay could well be full of seals in Ice Age, when it was the northernmost portion of European waters without permanent ice. And whales have been aboundant until historical times.

Magdalenian harpoons.

Early Inuit harpoon

More modern Inuit harpoons, showing the lines.

Something to think about, really.


Update: Magdalenians did eat sea mammals apparently.


Anonymous said...

I looked up The History Of Man by Carlton Coon on harpoons after you mentioned seafood as a possible influence on reduced jaw size in the Magdalenian as shown by the impacted tooth. He has diagrams of Inuit harpoon heads (like you have in this post) to illustrate their use of the toggle principle. When the head of the harpoon was in the prey and the rope was tighted the harpoon head was moved round 90 degrees inside the wound to become jammed, it could then be pulled on very hard without coming out.

Maju said...

Thanks for that technical explanation. I didn't know that detail.