It's always interesting to note when scientists decide to take a note from ancient tradition. Surprisingly, this is becoming more widespread in the realm of herbalism, ethnobotany and pharmacology for instance. Another interesting case of the modern tradition questing for the knowledge ancients apparently had all along is related to cetacean life, that of the relationship between humans and whales.
Harry Brower Sr. had a near death experience in which he was "visited" by a baby whale and experienced the death of the whale, not only that but knew exactly how the whale had died, in which ice cellar the meat was stored in and exactly which man had made the kill. Apparently he turned out to be right. Stunned, he spoke with Christian ministers as well as Utqiaġvik’s whaling captains about his experience.
There are, as it turns out, a number of Arctic and subarctic tribes who have had a long-standing relationship with whales, such as the Iñupiat who have long believed that humans and whales can communicate. Some Western scientists are now studying the ways Indigenous peoples relate with animals to learn more about the capacity for thought and feeling that certain animals are capable of.
<blockquote>“If you start looking at the relationship between humans and animals from the perspective that Indigenous people themselves may have had, it reveals a rich new universe,” says Matthew Betts, an archaeologist with the Canadian Museum of History who studies Paleo-Eskimo cultures in the Canadian Arctic. “What a beautiful way to view the world.”</blockquote>
The harsh conditions of the Arctic and subarctic regions made for hardy people. The Dorset, or Tunit as the Inuit refer to them as, died out 1,000 years ago. According to tradition the Tunit were known for amazing feats such as outrunning caribou and dragging thousands of pounds worth of walrus carcass across the ice floes. The women were said to have fermented raw seal meat using their own body heat, leaving the meat in their pants for days at a time.
One theory for what happened to the Tunit is related to the rise of whaling culture that allowed the Canadian Arctic-migrants from Alaska. The new whaling culture related to the Inuit of today. Whale hunting allowed for permanent setllements and led to a highly developed social structure. As a result, the whale hunts were an important part of the day-to-day life and were a foundation of the spiritual practice as well.
In the 10th century, some of the first Europeans wrote of the relationship between Arctic indigenous people and the whales. The Sami people of Northern Finland were just one group of Arctic region aboriginals rumored to have magical skills. Some medieval texts refer to the "monstrous fishes" and the mysterious peoples who could evoke them with certain incantations. In 1938, American anthropologist Margaret Lantis, referred to the "whale cult" that seemed to draw together all these disparate Arctic peoples.
South Pacific and Inuit cultures are rife with rituals and taboos against certain behavior. Many of the taboos in the Arctic cultures are related to the relationship between people and whales. These range from offering whales a drink of water, a meal and travelling bags when they'd been killed so they could find their way back to their spiritual home. Whalers would craft certain songs to "call" the whales and shamans would perform rituals in circles made of whale bones. Amulets and charms related to whaling were prized family possessions passed down from generation to generation.
Erica Hill, a zooarchaeologist with the University of Alaska believes that the traditionally close-minded view is part of the reason we have limited understanding of Arctic prehistory. Hill is interested in seeing how these amulets and the cosmology of the whalers affected their way of life and "what it tells us about alternative ways of being.”
Hill became interested in this kind of inter-special dynamic when in 2007 she found an arrangement of several intact walrus skulls in a circle. This was counter-intuitive. Most archaeologists were under the impression people in the northern climates would conserve calories as much as possible so the idea of hauling these gigantic skulls up a hill was directly opposed to that.
As she continued to study, she found this behavior was by no means out of the ordinary. The importance of using animal remains in shrines as well as the ceremonial burying of wolves and dogs all took place in the cultures of the "whale cult."
The belief that whales are able to communicate isn't just found in Arctic cultures. Whalers in British Columbia's Vancouver island have rituals related to communicate with the whales. Within the belief system, the whales weren't so much caught as giving themselves up to the community for the tribe's use. As such, a debt of respect was owed. This is the reason for ritual burial of the beluga.
These sorts of relationships made animals a near equal. This runs counter to the traditional treatment of animals in the Western world from domestication to industrialization and on. For Hill, it's not so important as to whether these communities really could communicate inter-specially, the important point is the animal-human relationship dynamic and how they “make room for animal intelligence and feelings and agency in ways that our traditional scientific thinking has not.”
Oddly enough, some biologists studying whale behavior are seemingly coming to similar conclusions regarding the abilities of cetaceans to engage with a "culture" of their own. Apparently, biologist Hal Whitehead has found evidence that bowhead whales may pass down knowledge. What's more, it seems that different groups of whales may have different "styles" of songs that differ in similar ways to linguistic dialects. More evidence of this is the wide difference in behavior between killer whale pods living in different areas despite being genetically identical and even having overlapping territories.
Then there's the Inupiat belief that whales could be driven away by the smell of the campfires. Until recently, scientists believed that whales had no sense of smell and this was no more than a myth. The Yupik belief that the beluga once walked on land also seems to be borne out by science if you parse the evolutionary development of the whale. It was certain Inupiat whalers who invested tax revenue from a nearby oil boom into some of the science that is bearing out certain ancient beliefs. As it turns out, sometimes science's greatest blindspot is dogmatic faith in what is already believed to be true.