Day Donaldson via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0
Day Donaldson via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0

Archaeologists Find Evidence That Prehistoric Peoples Ate (and Possibly Hunted) Whales

Day Donaldson via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0
Day Donaldson via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0

Early humans may have been more sophisticated and even gutsier than we realized. Researchers examining 4000-year-old trash heaps have identified the genetic remains of several species of whales. The team published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.

The first Greenlanders were the Saqqaq people, who arrived on the frozen continent around 2500 BCE. These were tempestuous times for our planet’s climate and, consequently, for its inhabitants, especially those in extreme habitats. The Saqqaq had to be super-adaptable if they wanted to survive.

Much of what we know about these early Greenlanders has come as a result of picking through their trash. Over the last century, archaeologists have excavated numerous middens (garbage dumps) dating back to the very first Saqqaq settlements. Unsurprisingly, they’ve found a lot of chunks of bone. Bone fragments are super-interesting, but they’re also quite limited in what they can tell us about a given civilization. For one thing, it’s hard to differentiate closely related species by looking at chips of their bones. For another, not every animal skeleton would end up on a trash heap. If the Saqqaq were hunting large animals, it’s unlikely that they would have dragged whole carcasses all the way home.

Fortunately, the middens contained a lot more than just bones.

Researchers collected 34 different sediment samples from settlement sites dating from around 2500 BCE to around 1800 CE. They processed the sediment through a sieve, which left them with piles of midden soil and smaller piles of the parasite eggs that had been living in it. Then they put both dirt and eggs through a battery of DNA tests to identify their origins.

This approach has a number of perks. Genetic testing can pull information from all kinds of organic material, including fat, skin, meat, and claws. And recruiting parasites to the research adds a whole new level of detail, since many parasites are picky and will only feed on certain species. Finding those parasites means there’s a pretty good chance those species were once there, too.

The middens were delightfully diverse in their contents. The researchers found genetic traces of 42 different types of vertebrate animals, including dogs and wolves (which may have been companion animals tethered near the dump), hares, caribou, and seals, and—in the oldest sites—walruses, seals, narwhals, and bowhead whales.

Exactly how the Saqqaq had snagged these massive animals remains to be seen. Whale scavenging was not unheard of in prehistoric times, the authors note, and an unpredictable climate could have caused a surge in whale strandings. But it’s also possible that these prehistoric settlers were out bagging whales. Hunters in other Greenland cultures are known for using poison-tipped spears to immobilize enormous prey; the Saqqaq people may have done something similar.

The discovery that early Greenlanders ate whales is one that “requires re-evaluating maritime history,” the authors write. “Western history has always considered European whaling as the originator and pinnacle of marine exploitation,” yet this study “pushes back the first evidence of whale product usage in the Arctic and can be seen as a logical development of the powers of indigenous observation and ingenuity in the efficient use of a plentiful northern marine energy resource.”

The study is “quite interesting,” says historical ecologist Josh Drew of Columbia University. Drew, who was unaffiliated with the study, recently co-authored a paper on the 19th-century whaling boom’s effect on other species.

The new paper "recognizes the technological acumen of indigenous people,” Drew tells mental_floss, "and shows that they were capable of highly sophisticated hunting techniques (and apparently using biological warfare) to capture whales.”

On top of that, these findings shake up our ideas of a “pristine” baseline for marine ecosystems. “It turns out those populations weren't so pristine,” he says, “and that our species has a long, tangled, history with Arctic marine mammals.”

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Authorities Want This Roadside Bear Statue in Wales Removed Before It Causes More Accidents
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There are no real bears in the British Isles for residents to worry about, but a statue of one in the small Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells has become a cause of concern. As The Telegraph reports, the statue is so convincing that it's scaring drivers, causing at least one motorist to crash her car. Now road safety officials are demanding it be removed.

The 10-foot wooden statue has been a fixture on the roadside for at least 15 years. It made headlines in May of 2018 when a woman driving her car saw the landmark and took it to be the real thing. She was so startled that she veered off the road and into a street sign.

After the incident, she complained about the bear to highways officials who agreed that it poses a safety threat and should be removed. But the small town isn't giving in to the Welsh government's demands so quickly.

Wooden bear statue.

The bear statue was originally erected on the site of a now-defunct wool mill. Even though the mill has since closed, locals still see the statue as an important landmark. Llanwrtyd Wells councilor Peter James called it an "iconic gateway of the town," according to The Telegraph.

Another town resident, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Telegraph that the woman who crashed her car had been a tourist from Canada where bears are common. Bear were hunted to extinction in Britain about 1000 years ago, so local drivers have no reason to look out for the real animals on the side of the road.

The statue remains in its old spot, but Welsh government officials plan to remove it themselves if the town doesn't cooperate. For now, temporary traffic lights have been set up around the site of the accident to prevent any similar incidents.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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10 Scientific Benefits of Being a Dog Owner
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The bickering between cat people and dog people is ongoing and vicious, but in the end, we're all better off for loving a pet. But if anyone tries to poo-poo your pooch, know that there are some scientific reasons that they're man's best friend.

1. YOU GET SICK LESS OFTEN.

Dog snuggling on a bed with its person.
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If cleaning commercials are to be believed, humanity is in the midst of a war against germs—and we shouldn't stop until every single one is dead. In reality, the amount of disinfecting we do is making us sicker; since our bodies are exposed to a less diverse mix of germs, our entire microbiome is messed up. Fortunately, dogs are covered in germs! Having a dog in the house means more diverse bacteria enters the home and gets inside the occupants (one study found "dog-related biodiversity" is especially high on pillowcases). In turn, people with dogs seem to get ill less frequently and less severely than people—especially children—with cats or no pets.

2. YOU'RE MORE RESISTANT TO ALLERGIES.

Child and mother playing with a dog on a bed.
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While dog dander can be a trigger for people with allergies, growing up in a house with a dog makes children less likely to develop allergies over the course of their lives. And the benefits can start during gestation; a 2017 study published in the journal Microbiome found that a bacterial exchange happened between women who lived with pets (largely dogs) during pregnancy and their children, regardless of type of birth or whether the child was breastfed, and even if the pet was not in the home after the birth of the child. Those children tested had two bacteria, Ruminococcus and Oscillospira, that reduce the risk of common allergies, asthma, and obesity, and they were less likely to develop eczema.

3. YOU'LL HAVE BETTER HEART HEALTH.

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Everything about owning a dog seems to lend itself to better heart health. Just the act of petting a dog lowers heart rate and blood pressure. A 2017 Chinese study found a link between dog ownership and reduced risk of coronary artery disease, while other studies show pet owners have slightly lower cholesterol and are more likely to survive a heart attack.

4. YOU GET MORE EXERCISE.

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While other pets have positive effects on your health as well, dogs have the added benefit of needing to be walked and played with numerous times a day. This means that many dog owners are getting 30 minutes of exercise a day, lowering their risk of cardiovascular disease.

5. YOU'LL BE HAPPIER.

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Dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression than non-pet owners. Even for those people who are clinically depressed, having a pet to take care of can help them out of a depressive episode. Since taking care of a dog requires a routine and forces you to stay at least a little active, dog owners are more likely to interact with others and have an increased sense of well-being while tending to their pet. The interaction with and love received from a dog can also help people stay positive. Even the mere act of looking at your pet increases the amount of oxytocin, the "feel good" chemical, in the brain.

6. YOU HAVE A MORE ACTIVE SOCIAL LIFE.

Large bulldog licking a laughing man.
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Not only does dog ownership indirectly tell others that you're trustworthy, your trusty companion can help facilitate friendships and social networks. A 2015 study published in PLOS One found that dogs can be both the catalyst for sparking new relationships and also the means for keeping social networks thriving. One study even showed that those with dogs also had closer and more supportive relationships with the people in their lives.

7. YOUR DOG MIGHT BE A CANCER DETECTOR.

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Your dog could save your life one day: It seems that our canine friends have the ability to smell cancer in the human body. Stories abound of owners whose dogs kept sniffing or licking a mole or lump on their body so they got it checked out, discovering it was cancerous. The anecdotal evidence has been backed up by scientific studies, and some dogs are now trained to detect cancer.

8. YOU'LL BE LESS STRESSED AT WORK.

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The benefits of bringing a dog to work are so increasingly obvious that more companies are catching on. Studies show that people who interact with a pet while working have lower stress levels throughout the day, while people who do not bring a pet see their stress levels increase over time. Dogs in the office also lead to people taking more breaks, to play with or walk the dog, which makes them more energized when they return to work. This, in turn, has been shown to lead to much greater productivity and job satisfaction.

9. YOU CAN FIND OUT MORE ABOUT YOUR PERSONALITY.

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The kind of dog you have says a lot about your personality. A study in England found a very clear correlation between people's personalities and what type of dogs they owned; for example, people who owned toy dogs tended to be more intelligent, while owners of utility dogs like Dalmatians and bulldogs were the most conscientious. Other studies have found that dog owners in general are more outgoing and friendly than cat owners.

10. YOUR KIDS WILL BE MORE EMPATHETIC.

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Though one 2003 study found that there was no link between pet ownership and empathy in a group of children, a 2017 study of 1000 7- to 12-year-olds found that pet attachment of any kind encouraged compassion and positive attitudes toward animals, which promoted better well-being for both the child and the pet. Children with dogs scored the highest for pet attachment, and the study notes that "dogs may help children to regulate their emotions because they can trigger and respond to a child's attachment related behavior." And, of course, only one pet will happily play fetch with a toddler.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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