walrus harpoon


Adaptation was an essential component of life in the Arctic. With food and resources scarce, efficiency and careful management of energy were vital for survival. The toggle harpoon from Baffin Island was an Arctic invention that typified this approach, a means by which Inuit wiki:world_gallery:layered_info:encounters:americas:arctic:arctic_hunting|hunters could catch large prey in the freezing waters of the Arctic Ocean. The harpoon comprises a long, tough cord made from seal or walrus hide, often as long as ten meters, although this example is somewhat smaller. At one end this cord is attached to a bone toggle with a sharp harpoon head, made in post-contact periods from iron, earlier from bone or shell. This toggle could be fitted onto a harpoon shaft made from driftwood while the other end of the cord could be attached to a kayak or to a float made from the hollowed carcass of a young seal.

Inuit hunters would sail in their kayaks along the known migration paths and territories of walrus or Beluga whales, seeking groups of these huge aquatic mammals. When a group was located, the hunters would pursue their prey, chasing them into shallow waters and narrow passages in the ice and, thus, limiting their ability to manoeuvre. The hunters would then target one of the group and surround them, throwing their harpoons into its hide; with the use of spear throwers, such as nn8262, a hunter could achieve considerable force and distance with a harpoon cast. When these harpoons struck the skin of the prey, in the case of this harpoon likely a walrus, the toggle head would detach from the shaft and slide through the thick layer of fatty blubber under the animal's skin. Trapped there, the walrus would begin to bleed profusely, prevented from diving too deep to escape pursuit by the resistance of the float or to escape by their attachment to the kayak. Over several hours the walrus would become weaker and weaker from loss of blood until it was unable to prevent a hunter killing it at close range with a long bone lance (or in the twentieth century with a close range rifle shot).

The dead walrus could then be dragged to shore and dismembered, its meat flash frozen in ice to preserve it for the journey back to the hunters' home. The toggle harpoon could be reclaimed from the carcass; many such harpoons in the Horniman Museum, including this example, show signs of extensive use over many years. The collector is J. C. Stevens.

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