So, imagine this, if you will…
You’re a deck hand on a North Atlantic fishing boat. You’ve been at sea for a couple months, you’re tired, you’re cold, and you think the rest of the crew might be planning to eat you if the food stores run out. Then one day, while you’re on deck doing whatever it is that deck hands do (I don’t think it has anything to do with caressing the deck with your hands, but I could be wrong), you glimpse something odd on the shore of a tiny island by which you just happen to be passing. You see towering white spires, arranged in a double row all along the shoreline. You see the huge skulls of giant whales dotting the landscape, and to you (being a lowly deck hand – I think deck hands are lowly, aren’t they?) it looks like the remnants of an ancient slaughter, an unceremonious graveyard for creatures of the deep.
What you didn’t know, is that this gruesome display of huge bones, is exactly what you think it is… a whale cemetery. Of course, it’s not like the whales planned to be buried there.
What I’ve just described is the scene you’d find if you travelled to a tiny Bering Sea island called Yttygran, which sits near the Cape of Chaplino in the Russian Federated Territories – also known as Siberia.
Now, certainly, if you happened to pass by this island not knowing what it is, or what’s it’s been, you’d probably react much like our hapless mariner above. But you, being the shrewd and worldly type, were thoughtful enough to visit this website before you set sail. Therefore you’d know that what you were looking at was actually Whale Bone Alley.
And it is precisely what it sounds like. A stretch of shoreline some 548 metres long that’s lined with the rib and jaw bones of slaughtered beluga whales. At some point circa 1450 AD, the local Inuit peoples – several different tribes or villages of which inhabited the area at the time – erected this strange and haunting monument of whale parts, though there is some confusion as to why.
Upon closer inspection, you would find that this is no random collection of bones, but rather is a deliberately constructed roadway delineated by the towering rib bones (some in excess of five metres high and weighing 300 kg), and dotted with huge whale skulls and large square pits dug into the permafrost. It would be a perplexing sight indeed.
Archaeologists believe that the site was constructed as a central shrine for use by the various villages of the region. Some speculate that it may have had a ritual purpose, perhaps playing host to sporting events and initiation rites.
Others still think perhaps it marks a place of common trade that existed outside of the tribal feuds and violence known to the area. The large square pits are thought to have been “meat pits” – essentially ready-made, in-ground refrigerators – used by merchants to keep their wares fresh for sale.
This idea isn’t without merit. Many Neolithic sites around the world were constructed as marketplaces. Just as a single example, Castlerigg Stone Circle, located in Cumbria, North West England, which was built in approximately 3200 BCE, is believed to have served as a marketplace for the Langdale axe industry of the same period. Erecting stone monuments to mark a location as significant for one reason or another was a common ancient human practice. Though stone, and the ability to quarry, carve and transport it, were somewhat rare in the isolated cold of northwestern Siberia. The next best thing? Whale bones!
Modern archaeologists first found Whale Bone Alley back in 1976, but what we know about the site remains speculative and scarce. The site has earned the nickname Siberia’s Creepy Answer to Stonehenge, though that is perhaps a little unfair.
As mentioned, there have been many different tribes of Inuit inhabiting the general region for millennia, so as yet we have no idea who actually built the monument. But according to modern locals, we have the story all wrong anyway.
That region is currently the stomping grounds of the Yupik, a long standing Siberian Inuit tribe, and it is from their language that the name Yttygran is derived. According to the Yupik the site was simply a massive whaling station. Whaling has been and continues to be the primary means of sustaining populations in these northern coastal regions. Much of Inuit culture, both in Siberia and in North America, revolves around the whaling industry, and on the migratory habits of whale species that are indigenous to whichever region.
It just so happens that Yttygran is smack in the middle of the beluga whales migratory path and as such is (and long has been) prime hunting ground. It only makes sense that an industrious people would have set up a central site to be used for the flensing, butchery, storage, and distribution of whale products – from meat to blubber to bone, etc. In fact, Yttygran means ‘meat pit’ in Yupik.
It actually seems a little silly for archaeologists to disagree with the people who are descended from those who built it, but science is as science does.
Whatever it turns out to have been, and by whomever it was built, the site is quickly becoming a world recognised eco-tourism attraction. According to Siberian Times, Whale Bone Alley has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and as such should survive long enough to become a well-known stop on any Siberian excursion.