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Ivory Harpoon Point
Old Bering Sea hunters decorated their harpoons with incised designs in the belief that their beauty, which honored the animal spirits, drew game to the hunter.


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Old Bering Sea Harpoon


Toggle diagramThe origin of harpoon technology, which is the basis for hunting sea mammals and for the entire North Bering Sea adaptation, is complex, and many details of its development remain unknown. Two types of harpoon heads developed, the barbed non-toggling form, which probably originated from the old paleolithic fish harpoon that predates man's arrival in the Bering Strait by thousands of years, and the toggling form, which toggles beneath the skin and blubber where it cannot be broken off by ice and holds heavier prey like whales and walrus.

The origin of the toggling harpoon is more recent and more obscure. Primarily a North Pacific and North American arctic implement, early toggling harpoons have been found in Old Whaling and Wrangel Island Chertov Ovrag sites at 1500 B.C. However, earlier prototypes are known from Maritime Archaic Indian sites in Newfoundland and Labrador as early as 5500 B.C. Could it be that this early "Eskimo" implement was actually introduced to the Western Arctic by central Arctic Pre-Dorset peoples who we have reason to believe acquired toggling harpoons from the Northeastern Indians 4,000 years ago, 500 years before the appearance of toggling harpoons in the Chukchi Sea? Alternatively, did they reach the North Pacific from Jomon cultures in Japan where toggling harpoons as early as 5,000 B.C. have been found?

Following the introduction of the toggling harpoon into the North Pacific, harpoon distribution takes on an interesting pattern. Rarely are barbed, non-toggling harpoons found in the Bering Strait, whereas they remain common farther south. In fact, it has been noted that the boundary between the two forms closely followed the southern limit of the winter pack ice. From this comes the suggestion that toggling harpoons are advantageous in regions where floating ice is abundant because they do not protrude outside of the wound and cannot be broken off when the animal strikes the ice, either accidentally or purposefully, whereas in iceless waters this refinement is unnecessary.

Carvings of spirit helpers on the harpoon further strengthened the power of the weapon; feathers and and wings transformed the harpoon head into swift birds of prey. Stylistic diversity and the absence of identical designs suggest Old Bering Sea art was produced by individual hunters, rather than by designated craft specialists. Yup'ik Eskimo hunters of Southwest Alaska continued the traditions of Old Bering Sea hunters into the 20th century.

- William W. Fitzhugh, ed. J. Prusinski

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