Two species of whale may have been hunted to extinction in the Mediterranean by the Romans, suggests new research.
Ancient bones found at Roman archaeological sites reveal that two whale species have been lost from the Med.
The Mediterranean was a haven 2,000 years ago for the whales which have since virtually disappeared from the North Atlantic, according to analysis of the bones.
Researchers say that the discovery of the whale bones in the ruins of a Roman fish processing factory, located at the Strait of Gibraltar, also hints at the possibility that the Romans may have hunted them.
Before the study, conducted by an international team of ecologists, archaeologists and geneticists, it was assumed that the Mediterranean was outside of the historical range of the right and gray whale.
Academics from the Archaeology Department at York University used ancient DNA analysis and collagen fingerprinting to identify the bones as belonging to the North Atlantic right whale and the Atlantic gray whale.
After centuries of whaling, the right whale currently exists as a “very threatened” population off eastern North America while the gray whale has completely disappeared from the North Atlantic and is now restricted to the North Pacific.
Study co-author Dr Camilla Speller, of York University, said: “These new molecular methods are opening whole new windows into past ecosystems.
“Whales are often neglected in archaeological studies, because their bones are frequently too fragmented to be identifiable by their shape.
“Our study shows that these two species were once part of the Mediterranean marine ecosystem and probably used the sheltered basin as a calving ground.
“The findings contribute to the debate on whether, alongside catching large fish such as tuna, the Romans had a form of whaling industry or if perhaps the bones are evidence of opportunistic scavenging from beached whales along the coast line.”
Dr Speller said both species of whale are migratory, and their presence east of Gibraltar is a “strong indication” that they previously entered the Mediterranean to give birth.
She said the Gibraltar region was at the centre of a massive fish-processing industry during Roman times, with products exported across the entire Roman Empire.
The ruins of hundreds of factories with large salting tanks can still be seen today in the region.
Study lead author Dr Ana Rodrigues, of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, said: “Romans did not have the necessary technology to capture the types of large whales currently found in the Mediterranean, which are high-seas species.
“But right and gray whales and their calves would have come very close to shore, making them tempting targets for local fishermen.”
Dr Rodrigues said that it’s possible that both species could have been captured using small rowing boats and hand harpoons, methods used by medieval Basque whalers centuries later.
The research team said knowledge that coastal whales were once present in the Med also sheds new light on ancient historical sources.
Study co-author Anne Charpentier, a lecturer at the University of Montpellier in France, said: “We can finally understand a 1st-Century description by the famous Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, of killer whales attacking whales and their new-born calves in the Cadiz bay.
“It doesn’t match anything that can be seen there today, but it fits perfectly with the ecology if right and gray whales used to be present.”
The researchers are now calling for historians and archaeologists to re-examine their material in the light of the knowledge that coastal whales where once part of the Mediterranean marine ecosystem.
Dr Rodriguez added: “It seems incredible that we could have lost and then forgotten two large whale species in a region as well-studied as the Mediterranean.
“It makes you wonder what else we have forgotten”.
The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B.