Zooarchaeological and molecular perspectives on Basque whaling in 16th Century Labrador

  • Stephen L. Cumbaa Canadian Museum of Nature
  • Moira W. Brown Canadian Whale Institute and Center for Coastal Studies
  • Bradley N. White Trent University


Whale bones recovered from the excavation of a 16th century Basque whaling station in Red Bay, Labrador are providing valuable data for archaeological interpretation as well as for biological studies of extant whale populations. Zooarchaeological studies on more than 2000 bones found during exploration of the harbour, and of specific activity areas such as wharves and ovens, give insight to Basque whale hunting, flensing, oil production and carcass disposal techniques. The principal prey species, the North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) and the Bowhead (Balaena mysticetus), are endangered species not native to the area today. Work now underway will compare DNA extracted from bone dust or shavings from the archaeological specimens with DNA isolated from skin samples obtained from the extant populations of these prey species. This molecular work could help determine the historic levels of genetic variation within the whale populations, the mitochondrial sequence profiles of the populations of whales hunted by the Basques, and confirm the species identification of whale bones.
Feature Article/Compte-rendu