National News

Ancient Romans Hunted ‘Sea Monsters.’ Were They Whales?

Posted July 16, 2018 1:31 p.m. EDT

There’s an ancient Greco-Roman poem that tells the tale of brave fishermen who harpooned a sea monster. Once they hooked the beast, the men reeled it in from their rowboats near the shore and hauled it onto the beach. The text, which is dated to the second or third century, describes one onlooker as standing on a cliff and beholding the “tremendous toil of the men in this warfare of the sea.”

But was this “sea monster,” or “cetus” as it is called in Latin, actually a whale?

A study published Wednesday provides the first direct evidence that two whale species, the gray whale and the North Atlantic right whale, may have lived near Mediterranean shores some 2,000 years ago. Today these whales are not found in the Mediterranean Sea. The finding, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, expands the historical range of the whale species and suggests they once roamed the same waters as the ancient Romans.

The authors also believe the finding could mean that the Romans, who had more than 200 processing plants for fish on the European and African coasts of the Western Mediterranean, may have conducted industrial-scale whaling.

“We show the Romans had the means, technology and the opportunity for a whaling industry,” said Ana Rodrigues, an ecologist from the Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology in France and lead author of the study. “But we don’t prove that they did.”

Rodrigues and her colleagues obtained 10 suspected whale bones collected from sites in Spain and Morocco near the Strait of Gibraltar. The team genetically analyzed the DNA from the bones and found that two belonged to gray whales and three belonged to right whales. Most of the other bones belonged to sea creatures that live in the Mediterranean today, such as a fin whale, a sperm whale, a long-finned pilot whale and a dolphin. Unexpectedly, one belonged to an African elephant. Unlike the other whale species discovered during the research, gray whales and North Atlantic right whales are known to swim near the shoreline to reproduce and birth their calves, which could have made them targets for Roman hunters.

Using radiocarbon dating as well as a method that dates sediment where the bones where found, the team dated the gray and right whale bones to years from around 230 B.C. to 525 A.D. During part of this period, the Roman Empire controlled the Strait of Gibraltar.

More bones and additional evidence will need to be uncovered before scientists can confidently say that ancient Roman whaling occurred. It is possible the whale bones the team analyzed belonged to stranded or dead whales that the Romans scavenged.

Vicki Szabo, an environmental historian from Western Carolina University in North Carolina, who was not involved in the study, said although the finding does not provide strong enough evidence to claim that ancient Romans were whaling commercially, it does provide a starting point for that interpretation. She added that it also provides historical perspective to understanding the ecology of the two whale species.

“This proposition that they were as far south as the Mediterranean, maybe breeding off the coast of Iberia and having a calving ground, that’s exciting,” Szabo said.

She added that the findings may encourage other researchers to revisit their Roman period collections and genetically test their marine animal bones to see if they belonged to ancient whales, especially North Atlantic right whales that are on the brink of extinction, she said. Only about 450 remain in their population, and researchers have seen no newborns this year.

“Their population is incredibly at risk,” said Szabo. “If we can go into those bones and try to look at their genetic profile from the past we can better understand the species today.”