Cueva de Nerja (Espagne): Barnacles Point to whale meat consumption
The remains of two barnacle species that once lived exclusively on the exterior of whales have been found in a camp fire at the Cueva de Nerja (the Caves of Nerja) in Málaga, Spain. Researchers from the University of Valencia have dated the charcoal from the fire to between 14,500 and 13,500 years ago.
Barnacles on a grey whale. Image: jpmckenna (Flickr, used under a CC BY 3.0)
Earliest consumption of whale meat
Scientists at the University, coordinated by Professor Joan Emili Aura Tortosa, analysed stone artefacts, horn and bone found in the fire along with the charcoal to arrive at the date. The scientific results show evidence of human consumption of whale meat during Prehistory in Europe.
The remains of the whale barnacles were found in occupation layers dating to the end of the last glacial maximum and associated with the Upper Palaeolithic Magdalenian period.
The association of the remains of barnacles with hunting and fishing equipment made of bone and stone is the oldest indirect evidence of whale consumption though not of whale hunting.
The whale may have become stranded on a beach at low tide and hunters would have taken the opportunity to take meat, fat and skin back to the cave for processing and consumption.
No whale bones have been identified in Nerja, unlike dolphins and seals, which are represented by various skeletal parts (jaws, teeth, vertebrae , ribs, etc), which suggests the hunters are only using (or able to transport) the flesh and skin of the whale.
Remains of whale barnacles. Image: Esteban Álvarez-Fernández and René-Pierre Carriol
Whale barnacles are crustaceans living on the skin of whales and so their presence within the cave’s archaeological deposits could only be the result of human action, with the coastline during this period lying around 4 km away. Currently, the cave is situated less than 1 km away from the sea.
The two species identified have been associated with a type of Southern Hemisphere whale (Eubalaena australis), although there are also suggestions of the barnacles being found on the north Atántico (Eubalaena glacialis).
This study also has relevance to palaeoecological studies, as it confirms a significant drop in the temperature of sea water in the region, previously suggested by research surveys conducted in the Alboran Sea, and also alters the distribution of these species of whales in the past.
Source: University of Valencia