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Ancient Romans hunted ‘sea monsters.’ Were they actually northern right whales?

Aerial view of fish-salting tanks in the ancient Roman city of Baelo Claudia, near today’s Tarifa in Spain
Aerial view of fish-salting tanks in the ancient Roman city of Baelo Claudia, near today’s Tarifa in SpainD. Bernal-Casasola/University of Cadiz

There’s an ancient Greco-Roman poem that tells the tale of brave fishermen who harpooned a sea monster. Once they hooked the beast, the men reeled it in from their rowboats near the shore and hauled it onto the beach.

But was this “sea monster,” or “cetus” as it is called in Latin, actually a whale?

A study published recently provides the first direct evidence that two whale species, the gray whale and the North Atlantic right whale, may have lived near Mediterranean shores some 2,000 years ago. Today these whales are not found in the Mediterranean Sea. The finding, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, expands the historical range of the whale species and suggests they once roamed the same waters as the ancient Romans.

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The authors also believe the finding could mean that the Romans, who had more than 200 processing plants for fish on the European and African coasts of the Western Mediterranean, may have conducted industrial-scale whaling.

“We show the Romans had the means, technology and the opportunity for a whaling industry,” said Ana Rodrigues, an ecologist from the Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology in France and lead author of the study. “But we don’t prove that they did.”

The North Atlantic right whale, also known as the northern right whale, is now an endangered species struggling to survive. Only 300 to 350 remain alive. They mostly frequent the northwest Atlantic Ocean, where they are threatened by fishing gear entanglement and ship collisions, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

The North Atlantic population of gray whales was eradicated by whaling in the early 1700s. Their bones have been found on both the eastern and western shores of the North Atlantic.

Rodrigues and her colleagues obtained 10 suspected whale bones collected from sites in Spain and Morocco near the Strait of Gibraltar. The team genetically analyzed the DNA from the bones and found that two belonged to gray whales and three belonged to right whales. Most of the other bones belonged to sea creatures that live in the Mediterranean today, such as a fin whale, a sperm whale, a long-finned pilot whale and a dolphin.

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Unlike the other whale species discovered during the research, gray whales and North Atlantic right whales are known to swim near the shoreline to reproduce and birth their calves, which could have made them targets for Roman hunters.

More bones and additional evidence will need to be uncovered before scientists can confidently say that ancient Roman whaling occurred. It is possible the whale bones the team analyzed belonged to stranded or dead whales that the Romans scavenged.

Charles “Stormy” Mayo, senior scientist and director of the North Atlantic Right Whale Ecology Program at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, said Tuesday that he believed the number of right whales remaining in the world is in the low 400s, slightly more than the WWF estimate.

He said if the Romans did hunt the whales, it shows the species was under stress even earlier than previously believed.

“If it is hunting, it’s just an indication that early people started the long and bloody history of the right whale even earlier than we have thought,” he said.

“It just extends the period from 1100s or thereabouts even further back,” he said. “That long history now may be starting in Roman times.”

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“No wonder we’ve got the situation that we’ve got now, as mortality increases and calving rates decrease. The population is reaping the benefits of that long history of bad relations,” he said.


Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.