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New studies suggest that Panamanian Islanders survived solely by hunting dolphins.

Ian Harvey

New studies suggest that people who lived on Pedro Gonzalez Island survived solely by hunting dolphins.

Pre-Colombian seafarers decided to leave Panama and set out for Pedro Gonzalez Island. They rowed out on the choppy seas on dug-out canoes, travelling miles to their new settlement on the island nearly 6,000 years ago.

Considering the island was quite small and did not offer many food sources, the people had to come up with new ways to get enough to eat; this is where the hunting of dolphins came in. The mammals were larger and provided a good amount of food for the people living there.

The archaeologists studying this possibility found that the inhabitants came up with a system for strategically killing the dolphins. They believe the Paleo-Indians who had lived there years ago used their canoes to drive the dolphins up toward the beach where they could kill them easily and butcher them right there.

How do the archaeologists know this and believe it could be true? There were remains of about 14 dolphins. In the study of the remains, three different species were found, discovered in a prehistoric scrap heap on the island. After doing more research, the archaeologists found that at least eight percent of the mammal bones and teeth found in the heap were from dolphins.

One of the larger pieces of remains was a skull from a dolphin. It had one puncture hole in the head, which suggests it was killed by a sharp, blunt object. Other remains found in the heap were from a tiger sharks that measured eight to ten feet long. Archaeologists believe that the only way the islanders could have killed these massive sharks was if the dolphins were being pursued by the predator, resulting in the beaching of both animals and the islanders killing them both at the same time.

An archaeologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, Richard Cooke, said that during their study on the island they did not come across any nets, spears, or traps. This leads them to believe the islanders were truly actively hunting the dolphins and other animals.

Looking through the heap of remains, Cooke and the other archaeologists believe dolphin was a major part of the islanders’ diet. He speculates that dolphin hunting began due to an early circum-Pacific maritime adaptation by humans. Since the archaeologists have so little data on this issue, they cannot prove the ancient people actually hunted. However, the age of the site proves that people around the Pacific Rim, which included Chile, Mexico, and Japan, all hunted dolphins.

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Cooke said that it is possible that the islanders fed off the dolphins when the animals became beached. However, the amount of bones found in the heap does not support that idea. Dolphins do become beached, but not as often as the amount of bones suggest.

Cooke believes that the islanders positioned their canoes at the “U” shaped island and waited for the dolphins to swim into the inlet of the Don Bernardo Beach, trapping the animals. The schools of fish that swam in the area would have attracted the dolphins closer to shore and to the inlet.

Since dolphins have a great sense of hearing, the islanders would have created noise to disorientate the dolphins, driving them up onto shore where they would be killed. Similar methods such as those are still being used today in Panama.

The dolphins that were used in the islanders’ diets were common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, and harbour dolphins.

Humans have been hunting dolphins and whales for thousands of years. They have killed almost 2.9 million whales in just the last century; it is still considered the largest hunt in human history. These figures represent the first global estimate of the number of whales killed by industrial harvesting during the 20th century.

Between the years of 1900 and 1999, scientists estimated that about 276, 442 whales were killed in the North Atlantic. Nearly 563,696 were killed in the North Pacific, and 2,053,956 were killed in the Southern Hemisphere.

Whales were killed not only for their meat but also for their oil, which provided light and lubrication.