Archaeology of Whaling on the Olympic Penninsula

(1995)

In June, 1995, Andrea Alexander, general manager of the Makah tribe, announced her tribe's intention to return to the whaling tradition of their ancestors. They plan to take up to five gray whales a year, for ceremonial—not commercial—use. Controversy ensued of course: environmentalists decry the proclamation as a violation of the international ban on whaling, while Norwegians and Icelanders wonder if they don't also have an ethnic right to hunt. The Makah assert that they possess something no other group on Earth has: the explicit treaty right to whale (Egan, 1995). But behind the unified front that Alexander and the Makah people present to the rest of the world, the more complicated question of which individuals will hunt whales stalks the Makah. Whaling is the traditional province of the elite lineages, and not every Makah has the right to hunt.

For anthropologists, the question of who has the right to hunt whales raises important questions about the nature of social status. How did whaling arise as a behavior that only the upper strata could undertake? The archaeological and ethnographic records suggest that only wealthy families engaged in whaling, but why was this the case?

The Ethnographic Record

Drucker (1951) and Waterman (1920) both describe similar patterns of whaling among the historic Makah. The Makah hunted whales on the open ocean, in large dugout canoes of the “Nootkan” or “Chinook” type (Waterman, 1920), up to 10 meters long, and powered with rows of oars or a square woven sail. The Makah hunted with composite toggling harpoons, sinew line, and floats made of harbor seal skins. Waterman (1920) documented the exclusive use of metal for harpoon points, but the form of the points and the bone valves maintained remarkable continuity of form with composite harpoons recovered at the Ozette Archaeological site (McKenzie, 1983; Huelsbeck, 1994b) which has implications for mechanisms of transmission of cultural traits (Croes, 1989; 1992c). Waterman noted that the Makah most frequently hunted the California gray whale, but also took right whale, humpback whale, finback whale, “sulphurbottom” (blue) whale, killer whale, and sperm whales. This fits closely with the faunal record of Ozette (see “The Archaeological Record at Ozette Village,” below), where researchers found grays and humpbacks in the largest quantities, and finback and right whales in smaller quantities (Huelsbeck, 1994b; Huelsbeck and Wessen, 1994).

Waterman (1920) summarized the observations of previous ethnographers in his description of the ritual behavior involved with whaling. Several days prior to a whale hunt, the hunter began a long series of purifications and sympathetic behaviors designed to maximize the likelihood of bringing in a whale. He would bathe every morning at dawn in a freshwater lake or pond, imitating the whale's behavior with slow and deliberate movements. Waterman and Drucker both described the use of human remains, including complete skeletons, in the ritual baths.

The hunter’s wife was usually enlisted as an accomplice in these ceremonies, since his contact with women--and especially sexual contact--was highly proscribed prior to a hunt. During his ritual baths, the hunter’s wife would stand on shore and sing “this is the way the whale will act” (Waterman 1920: 39), sometimes tethering herself to her husband with a line to symbolize the ease with which he would tether himself to the whale. When the hunter embarked on the hunt, his wife would seclude herself, lying still and not eating or drinking until her husband returned. Waterman also noted that “the whaler himself never eats whale meat, lest he have difficulty in bringing in whales” (Waterman, 1920: 40).

Drucker mentioned in passing the status implications of whaling and hunting. The hereditary chief often led whaling hunts, although his duties were “of an executive nature” and usually did not include actually harpooning, towing, or processing a whale (Drucker, 1951: 244). Swan (1869) noted, that of all the whalers, only the chief could kill a whale. The job of whale hunter was inherited from the father, along with rituals and taboos associated with hunting whales (Drucker 1951). Unlike with other resources such as fishing sites (which were owned corporately), a hunter had individual ownership of his catch, and was obliged only to “[give] a feast with the fat and flesh” (1951: 253). Drucker (1951) suggested that whales were of greater social importance than economic importance, but may have been referring more to the Northern Nootkan groups than to the Makah. Swan (1869) postulated that large amounts of whale oil were traded to nearby groups, and that the Makah relied heavily on whales for food. But while the ethnographic record of the Makah represents a useful database from which researchers can approach the archaeology of the Olympic Peninsula, strict attention must be paid to the actual material evidence of whaling and associated behaviors.

The Archaeological Record at Ozette Village

Artifacts and faunal materials recovered from the Ozette Village site reveal a maritime adaptation focused on whaling that dates to as early as 500 years before present. A mudslide buried several houses at Ozette Village, preserving them in oxygen-poor heavy muds. These muds inhibited decay of organic objects including wooden artifacts and structural elements, and bone (Samuels, 1994a, 1994b).

The Ozette Village site contained an overwhelming amount of whale bone. Excavators uncovered some 3400 complete or partial bones and 100 cubic feet of fragmentary whale bone. The overwhelming majority of the complete and partial bone sample—some 75%—were unidentifiable with regard to species. 50% of the identifiable bones belonged to gray whales, 46% belonged to humpback whales, with right whale and finback whale making up the remainder. The researchers tentatively identified three teeth as belonging to killer whales, and one tooth as sperm whale. Excavators recovered whale barnacles from the house floor midden, revealing that the Ozette people brought blocks of whale blubber (with the skin still attached) back to their village. Several whale bones bore hack marks and gouges, probably made for the purpose of extracting rich marrow oils (Huelsbeck, 1983, 1994b).

Using meat-weight estimates based on faunal remains, Huelsbeck (1994b) estimated that whales represent up to 85% of the total meat weight at Ozette. Blubber comprises as much as one-third of whale meat by weight (Denniston, 1973), and can be rendered into nutritional oil and consumed in modest quantities. If too much oil is consumed the human body cannot digest it properly and secretes an excess of ketone bodies, leading to liver damage and an imbalance of soluble electrolytes (Denniston, 1973, in Huelsbeck, 1994b). Perhaps to minimize the possibility of ketonic diseases, the Ozette people traded whale oil along the coast, limiting the amount available for their own intake while still benefiting from the surplus (see “Whale Hunting as Sociocultural and Economic Behavior,” below). Huelsbeck (1994b) estimates that whale might then comprise 60% or less of the Ozette diet as reflected in the faunal evidence.

Archaeologists found more than 1000 whale bone tools at Ozette, representing 25% of the bone artifact sample. The Ozette people fashioned whale bones—particularly mandibles and ribs—into spindle whorls, bark shredders and beaters, cutting boards, clubs, wedges, and tool handles, as well as a variety of enigmatic tools of uncertain function. They used whale bones as structural elements in constructing water diversion and bank stabilization walls (Huelsbeck, 1994b)

Excavators unearthed hundreds of artifacts associated with whaling at Ozette. They recovered harpoon shafts, heads, and head sheaths, canoe paddles, canoes sides, and the wooden plugs used to stop seal skin floats. Researchers uncovered long-bladed flensing knives and wooden cooking boxes that the Ozette people may have used to render whale blubber (Huelsbeck, 1994b; Samuels, 1994b).

The Ozette people probably hunted whales as part of a larger subsistence strategy focusing at least in part on deepwater maritime resources, similar to subsistence patterns in evidence at the Hoko River sites (see “The Archaeological Record at Hoko River,” below). The presence of predominantly openwater fish such as halibut, lingcod, rockfish, greenling, and herring, as well as porpoises, sea otters, and fur seals suggests that the people who lived here hunted and fished from boats in open water (Huelsbeck, 1983; 1994a).

The assemblage of artifacts and non-whale faunal material at Ozette may also reflect levels of social stratification that accompany whaling (Wessen, 1988). The distribution of shellfish resources between the different houses at Ozette implies a certain level of social stratification. House 1 contained whaler’s gear, which was relatively more uncommon in other structures at the site. House 1 also contained wealth items usually associated with elevated status, such as inlaid and carved house elements, and the presence of decorative shell. House 1 contained much more Dentalium, Astraea and Haliotus shell than the other houses, all of which are locally unavailable shells that House 1 inhabitants may have obtained as wealth items through trade. (Wessen, 1983, 1988, 1994; Samuels, 1994c). The residues of actual shellfish animals also suggests that House 1 occupants may have eaten more primary subsistence foods (Wessen, 1983) which Wessen (1988) interprets as an indicator of elevated status. The absence of Mytilus edulis, a mussel with only a single local source, in House 5 suggests that House 5 residents may not have had access to the source (Wessen, 1988, 1994).

The Archaeological Record at Hoko River

If the Ozette site is remarkable for its abundance of whale fauna, the other major site in historic Makah territory—Hoko River—is just as notable for its paucity of whale fauna. Undoubtedly, the lack of systematic screening contributed to the shortage of faunal data from Hoko River (see “Evaluation of the Archaeological Record,” below), but whale bones are notably larger than those of other animals and should be less affected by unevenly-employed recovery techniques. Researchers recovered two fragmentary pieces of gray whale bone (a left ulna and a fragment of a cervical vertebral transverse process), and found a few unidentifiable fragments nearby. Excavations uncovered no artifacts that could be associated with whaling, leading Fisken (1980) to claim that all the whale bone recovered at Hoko River derived from a single individual, probably a whale that beached nearby.

The assemblage of fishing gear at the Hoko River sites suggests that the Hoko River people exploited offshore fisheries with maritime fishing techniques. Excavators uncovered large bentwood and composite fishhooks, anchors, and possible kelp lines, as well as the remains of deepwater groundfish like halibut, petrale sole, Pacific cod and rockfish. (Hoff, 1980; Huelsbeck, 1980; Croes & Blinman, 1980). The addition of sea mammal-hunting harpoons (Ayers, 1980; Croes & Blinman, 1980) and the presence of harbor porpoises and fur seals in the faunal assemblage (Friedman, 1980; Wigen and Stucki, 1988) rounds out a picture of deepwater resource exploitation at Hoko River that parallels that found at Ozette, albeit without evidence of whaling. Wigen and Stucki's (1988) analysis of faunal remains and stratigraphy at the Hoko River rockshelter demonstrates a dramatic increase in fur seal exploitation in later depositional episodes. They interpret the increase as intensified resource exploitation in response to human population pressure. Within the framework of theoretical models of “quantum cultural evolution,” sealing intensification could represent local variations of a subsistence strategy focusing on offshore maritime resources (Croes, 1988a; 1992c) (see “Whale Hunting as Sociocultural and Economic Behavior,” below).

Evaluation of the Archaeological Record

The archaeological record inevitably contains methodological and theoretical flaws. By assessing the flaws of the archaeological data and the framework within which they are employed, researchers can more fruitfully pursue inquiries into the subsistence and status behaviors of prehistoric Olympic Peninsula peoples. Attempting to reconcile inconsistencies in the ethnographic and archaeological records may also clarify enigmas of either record.

Several researchers have noted the less than systematic recovery techniques in use at the Ozette Village excavations (Samuels, 1994b; Huelsbeck and Wessen, 1994; Butler, 1995). With only quarter inch wet screen employed, when it was employed at all, excavators lost much of the microfaunal data from Ozette. Delicate fish bones--which don't preserve well to begin with—would pass easily through this wide screen, overrepresenting species with large and robust bones. Finely-fragmented shell would also be lost, making accurate assessment of the relative weight of shellfish in Ozette diet difficult to ascertain with a high degree of accuracy. Samuels (1994a), Huelsbeck (1994a, 1994b), and Wessen (1994) all acknowledge these shortcomings and attempt to compensate for them. The Ozette residents' differential housecleaning practices would also have affected the archaeological record, possibly misrepresenting certain classes of artifacts. Variable taphonomic processes affect the faunal record, and make detailed analysis less certain. Most units at Hoko River went unscreened, and excavators hand-sorted significant artifacts in the field during excavation (Croes & Blinman, 1980). Microfaunal remains recovered from soil samples, and Wigen and Stucki’s (1988) stratigraphic and taphonomic analysis represent the largest source of faunal data (Friedman and Croes, 1980).

Researchers at Ozette and Hoko River often assume that artifact and ecofact distribution accurately reflects social status. Such assumptions often ignore mechanical difficulties such as differential taphonomic processes and postdepositional redistribution. The assumption that artifact distribution reflects social status narrows researchers to an analytic method based on ethnographic baselines, which may misinform hypothetical models (Butler, 1995). Archaeologists should investigate the source of inconsistencies between the archaeological and ethnographic records, rather than form models from ethnographies that explain archaeological results.

For example, Huelsbeck (1994b) and Wessen (1988) both note the increased presence of whale bone and whaling gear in House 1, along with status goods such as Dentalium shells. Huelsbeck and Wessen interpret this as evidence for the elevated social status of House 1 residents, despite ethnographic data that whalers may not have eaten whale (Waterman, 1920). Barring the possibility that Waterman was simply wrong, whale bone may have been present in House 1 due to the prevalent use of whale bone for tool manufacture, or due to its consumption by members of the whalers’ households. Waterman is also unclear on whether the prohibition on whale meat consumption extended to chiefly lineages, or applied only to the chief's whaler henchmen. While archaeologists can’t ignore ethnographic data, they must use caution in integrating these data into their analyses, and should seek evidence of behavior in the archaeological record independent of ethnographic data.

Whale Hunting as Sociocultural and Economic Behavior

All researchers agree that whale hunting formed a significant part of the lifeway of Makah and prehistoric Olympic Peninsula peoples. Evidence of whaling at Ozette dates at least to 500 years B.P., and forms a preponderance of the faunal material recovered there. Modern Makah view whaling as a proud cultural heritage, one to which they plan to return (Egan, 1995). Considerable debate rages over the extent to which early historic and prehistoric peoples of this region relied on whaling as a source of food or oil for trade. Questions also remain as to the sociocultural implications of high-risk, status behavior such as whaling, and to the importance of whale as a status food source.

Matson’s theory of the Developed Northwest Coast Pattern (Matson, 1992; Matson and Coupland, 1995) explains the evolution of whaling as a subsistence strategy adapted from salmon fishing. According to Matson (1992), ascribed social ranking characteristic of Northwest Coast groups arose as a side effect of the defense of dense, reliable, and predictable resources. Certain groups within a community began to control access to important resource areas and then passed this control to their descendants. According to Matson, once a successful new economic system develops, it spreads throughout a region. Local groups lacking the primary resource of the new system adapt existing local resources that are similarly dense, reliable, and predictable. Whaling would have arisen as an Olympic variation on the social system developed on the lower mainland of British Columbia involving salmon procurement intensification (Matson, 1992).

Archaeologists often interpret whaling as a single adaptation within a larger openwater maritime subsistence pattern. Evidence at the Hoko River wet site indicates that residents of the Olympic Peninsula fished for openwater species like halibut and lingcod, and hunted fur seals as early as 2300 years ago. An adaptation to openwater maritime resources could be extended to include whaling, with the addition of whaling implements to the existing technology. Subsistence patterns at Ozette Village undoubtedly had a maritime focus: the most heavily exploited species, other than whale, were outer coast shellfish and openwater fish (Huelsbeck, 1994a). Croes (1988b, 1989) has proposed theoretical systems that explain cultural change as operating on several levels concurrently. Croes' evaluation of basketry and lithic artifacts at the Hoko wet site suggests that some technological traits, such as basketry styles, are less influenced by functionality and reflect distinct ethnic lineages. Conversely, economic factors constrain subsistence-dependent technologies like lithics that may reflect broad or widespread subsistence pattern changes in a region. Changes in subsistence technologies may spread rapidly, and groups later adapt such changes to local environments (Croes, 1989). In the case of the Olympic Peninsula, the Ozette villagers molded a generalized maritime subsistence pattern including fur sealing and hook-and-line fishing to the locally-rich whale resources.

Croes’s computer models (1988a; 1992a; 1992c) provide another explanation for the evolution of whaling on the Peninsula. Croes postulates that as human populations on the Northwest Coast increased, they began to develop storage economies that extended seasonally-abundant resources into lean periods. Prestorage economies would focus on annually-available resources such as shellfish, which would have collapsed with overexploitation as human populations increased. Storage economies stabilized resource availability, allowing high-risk, high-yield subsistence activities to appear more lucrative. Social stratification evolved as a corollary to the storage economy, since seasonally-abundant, locally-concentrated, predictable resources needed management to prevent overexploitation, and for redistribution. At the same time, such resources lend themselves to individual and corporate ownership, leading to increasing levels of social stratification and the formation of an executive class with control of exploitation and distribution (Croes, 1992c). Whaling represents the apex of a subsistence strategy founded on a stable resource base.

Huelsbeck’s investigations into the development of whale oil as a trade item may help inform questions concerning the evolution of whaling. The Ozette villagers may have traded oil to nearby groups for other foodstuffs or for prestige goods such as dentalia found at Ozette (Wessen, 1983). Swan (1869) and Drucker (1951) both documented whale oil and fur seal trade among the historic Makah, although by historic times sea otter pelt trade eclipsed fur seal pelt trade in importance. Trading whale oil made efficient use of surplus oil, which the Ozette people couldn't eat in extremely large quantities without risking ketonic disorders (Huelsbeck, 1994b). This model begs the question of a chicken-or-egg paradox: did whaling arise out of the pressure to expand trade networks, or did trade networks develop as a strategy to benefit from inedible surplus whale oil?

Environmental/economic theoretical models—although useful for modeling environmental and economic factors—often fail to integrate social behaviors that aren’t easily simulated. Overly mechanistic models tend to array cultures along simplistic forager collector (or similar) axes, and smack of social determinism. No researcher can discount the overwhelming evidence that ascribed status and intensified resource exploitation accompanied increased population. But environmental determinists envision economic systems as juggernauts beyond the control of individuals or societies, steamrolling over individual choice and cultural responses to environmental change.

Highly simulative models (such as Croes’ computer models) rely on prima facie assumptions with precariously thin archaeological evidence. Croes’ computer simulations, for example, model flatfish intensification and storage as precluding salmon-based economies (Croes, 1992c). Very little archaeological evidence exists for this model of economic behavior (Matson, 1992). Computer models are useful for generating hypothetical tests that may be applied to the archaeological record, but are less useful as predictive tools or as evidence for social change. Like all economic/ecological models of human behavior, they often underestimate social and ideational factors, and overrepresent human behavior as a process of cost/benefit analysis.

Archaeologists often rely overly on the formulation of hypotheses based on the ethnographic record. The ethnographic record, even under the best of circumstances, represents a modally different framework for understanding human behavior, since it relies on continuous observation of extant groups. Archaeologists must content themselves with studying the refuse and residue of past peoples, who are no longer at hand to answer interpretive questions. Archaeologists must form theoretical models holding more closely to the record preserved in the ground, and rely on ethnographic sources less to inform hypotheses and more to interpret enigmas already present in the archaeological record.

Researchers have paid relatively little attention to the importance of food as a prestige item in its own right. A growing body of work in other parts of the Northwest Coast (Moss, 1993) indicates that food itself has status implications that archaeologists often ignore. At Ozette, for example, the preponderance of whale bones and barnacles, along with whaling gear and wealth items like dentalia in House 1 suggests that some House 1 inhabitants not only may have hunted whales, but also consumed more whale meat because they enjoyed an elevated social status.

The development of whaling on the Olympic Peninsula may have arisen as a status behavior of “big men.” As social stratification (for whatever reason) intensified, the privileged class may have had relatively more leisure time and access to stable food sources, allowing them to engage in whaling activity. Whaling would become a prestige behavior not only because of its high yield, but because only the wealthy could afford to engage in it. The “right” to whale would be a corollary of social status, not of the importance of whale meat per se. The ethnography of whaling (Swan, 1869; Waterman, 1920; Drucker, 1951) suggests that it was a high-status behavior, as does the corroboration of whale bone evidence with Wessen’s (1988, 1994) shellfish research. Trade may have intensified the status effect of whaling by allowing whalers to obtain flashy luxury items like dentalia shells. Croes’ (1992c) and Matson's (1992) models support whaling as a corollary of economic processes, suggesting that the elite have greater access to economic wealth and the means of obtaining wealth. What the economic models lack, however, is an explanation of whaling as an ideational or social construct. Unfortunately, very little research has been done into the social importance of whaling, and the thin faunal evidence recovered from Ozette and Hoko is difficult to interpret within this paradigm.

Conclusions

Archaeologists have had enormous difficulty knowing the actual importance of whaling to the food base of prehistoric Olympic Peninsula peoples. Butler (1995), Huelsbeck (1995b), and Samuels (1995a) have addressed the difficulties associated with the unevenly employed recovery techniques in use at Ozette and Hoko River. With the lack of accurate faunal data, archaeologists can be assured of a large degree of ambiguity in their interpretations of these sites.

The uneven faunal data from Ozette and Hoko River demonstrate the pitfalls inherent in forming excavation designs around economic paradigms, or in the absence of a stated paradigm. At Ozette, the occasional use of quarter inch screens provides something like a random sample of archaeological materials, although faunal evidence may have been actively excluded from the sample. At Hoko River, excavators didn’t screen their sample at all, but simply retained artifacts they considered “significant,” leading to an inevitable misrepresentation of the faunal record. It is difficult even to track to what degree the faunal record is misrepresented, since no control groups (other than soil samples) exist against which to compare excavators’ samples. Less than rigorously systematic recovery strategies may be valid for constructing low-range theoretical models of economic activity, but lack the fine degree of detail necessary for higher-range theory encompassing social behavior.

Future analyses of the materials recovered from Ozette and Hoko are far from impossible. Whale barnacles recovered from Ozette may not only be host-specific, but also site-specific. That is, a particular species of whale barnacle may inhabit not only one species of whale, but one particular part of one species of whale (Wessen, pers. comm.). Researchers can use whale barnacle data to ascertain inhabitants of which houses at Ozette were eating a particular part of a particular species of whale. Waterman (1920) and Swan (1869) detail the distribution of whale parts according to social status. Integrating the whale barnacle data with the ethnographic record and comparing the results with other evidence of wealth and status at Ozette could reveal specific social patterns between the houses at Ozette.

Previous researchers have often focused on social complexity as either a cause or effect of economic behaviors. Perhaps they have not given enough attention to the integration of existing theoretical models. None of the economic models of whaling are mutually exclusive, nor are economic models inherently exclusive of ideational or social dynamics. By placing undue focus on the question of economic subsistence as either a cause or effect of social stratification, current theories ignore the reflexive properties of cultural change. Social complexity may interact in a feedback loop with economic strategies to generate an ever-tightening spiral of increasing social stratification and subsistence intensification.

One can envision a situation on the Olympic Peninsula in which dwindling shellfish resources prompt the adoption of seasonal storage of these and other resources (including whales and openwater fish), leading to the formation of an executive class, as Croes’ and Matson’s models suggest. Such a class of wealthy “Big Men” may have reinforced their power by engaging in showy subsistence activities like whaling. In time, whaling, by its association with the upper strata, became a status activity in and of itself. Trade could reinforce this division, by allowing the whalers differential access to exotic luxury items. As the Big Men rise in social power, they exert more executive control over resource procurement and distribution, which in turn prompts more status behavior. Unfortunately, with a lack of relevant data, I can propose such a theory only on the grounds that it is consistent with current models advanced by Croes, Matson, and Huelsbeck.

Archaeologists interested in exploring the evolution of whaling will find themselves inevitably involved with questions of social complexity. Inquiries into the nature of complexity have applications for the social theorist curious about the evolution of the hyperindustrial modern world. By addressing the evolution of cultural complexity in other groups, we may understand how our own culture has become so complicated. The study of whaling will have immediate practical applications for the Makah people as well. Archaeologists can help the Makah people answer difficult questions of who has the right to whale, and to what extent they may exercise this right.

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