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Standing whale ribs on Yttygran Island. Source: National Ocean Service / Public Domain

The Mystery Of Whale Bone Alley: Who Built It, And Why?

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The history of the human race is of contsant interest to us. Many strange and unknown peoples have walked the earth before us, and everything that we see today holds a piece of history in it. Our human history, the story of who we are, is as intriguing to us as anything else on this planet. Without it, we cannot know ourselves. 

History, therefore, stands like a window that opens on different portals and different times. This allows people to look into the past, not only out of idle curiosity, but to learn from it. We are unique in that way, the only animal on earth that looks at itself in retrospection and learns, not just by example, from consciously from its long-dead forefathers.  

One of the many intriguing treasures of our anthropological history is that of Whale Bone Alley. In the windswept blue waters of the  Bering Sea , 24 km (15 miles) northwest of Cape Chaplino in the easternmost tip of  Russia, sits Yttygran Island. Today, the once-obscure island is famous for its ecotourism and historic travel trails. And, most strangely, its whale bones.  

Yttygran Island holds the remnants left by many native  tribes, now long-scattered or extinct. In the waters surrounding the island, beluga and bowhead whales can be seen lazily swimming. These whales have provided the raw materials which have made this island famous. Yttygran Island, Whale Bone Alley, and the whales are all interlinked. 

Yttygran Island

Yttygran Island lies 1.5 km (1 mile) off the coast of eastern  Asia, just south of the  Arctic Circle. Its location at the extreme easternmost tip of  Russia means that it is also little more than 200 km (125 miles) from Alaska, in the  United States .   

The island is tiny, only 13.5 km (8.4 miles) long and 5 km (3.1 miles) wide. The island may be small, but has some unique history to offer the visitor. Because of this, and because of its natural mountainous beauty, the island is highly popular as a tourist spot today. The island is part of the Russian Federation, and this tourism is the main source of income for its residents. 

Whale Bone Alley  

Yttygran Island is most famous for a very peculiar reason. The island is home to the Whale Bone Alley, a 550m (601 yard) stretch of land where giant whale  bones and skulls dot the landscape like strange, ancient standing stones.  

Whale bones dot the island, apparently in an elaborate pattern (National Ocean Service / Public Domain)

Whale bones dot the island, apparently in an elaborate pattern (National Ocean Service /  Public Domain )

The Alley was discovered in the year 1976, when  Soviet archaeologists stumbled upon the site while exploring the island. The initial site they explored contained around 34 bones from bowhead whales. These bones were arranged roughly in a line, and so the archaeologists gave it the name Whale Bone Alley. The arrangement of whale bones was found to date back to 600 years ago, and was extremely unusual and interesting from an anthropological perspective.  

The whale bones are massive, weighing around 300 kg (660 lb) each. The bones have been forced deep into the sand and are supported by stones around their bases. The alleys and pits criss-cross the region, and the pattern they form has led archaeologists to believe that the site was once far larger and more elaborate. 

What Is This Place?

Historians who have studied the site believe that the place was once full of whale skulls. The site also has some pits, which were believed to be used to store whale meat. Decades have passed since the site’s discovery, but archaeologists are still not sure about its purpose. 

In the absence of a definitive understanding of the site, there are many wild theories around Whale Bone Alley. These only add to the fame of the site, attracting tourists who want to see the mysterious arrangements for themselves. In terms of the scale of the mystery, the Alley has as many unanswered questions as  Stonehenge or the  Pyramids of Giza. 

The prevalent theory is that Yttygran island was once inhabited by native tribes of Inuit called the “Yupik”. At the time the site was created, in the 14th century, the island was much colder than it is today. This resulted in ice sheets covering the surrounding seas, and food shortages across the island. 

Siberian Yupik (Nabogatova /  Public Domain )

The Yupik were known to hunt for whales, as they do today, as the only reliable source of food in those times. It is theorized that these are remnants of those whales, which were organized by the tribespeople in a decorative fashion.  

The archaeologists believe that the Yupik tribe on the island fragmented during this “ Little Ice Age ” period, and that there was violence between different factions of the tribe. In this light, Whale Bone Alley could have been constructed as a  shrine, marking neutral territory where the different factions could meet and eat together without fear of violence. The factions could discuss their problems at this place and find solutions together.  

The archaeologists also believe that the tribesmen may have taken part in sacrificial offerings and rituals. However, the details of such sacrificial rituals are yet to be found. The Yupik people who stay in the region today say that the place is only an ancient storehouse of meat. Since whale meat was a staple for the Yupik forefathers, there are chances that the Alley is just an ancient  butcher house for whales. 

Investigations are continuing into the Whale Bone Alley and its origins. The purpose of it may have died with the forefathers of the Yupik tribe. However, the air of enigma and isolation that surrounds the place even today makes it one of the weirdest historical sites in the world. Scientists continue to try to understand what happened here, and meanwhile, tourists from all over the world continue to throng to the isolated island.  

Whether Whale Bone Alley is an old shrine or a butcher house that catered to the more simplistic needs of man, it is certainly an eccentric mark left by man on history. Maybe one day we will understand what this place meant to the Yupik, 600 years ago. But in the meantime the air of silent mystery, and the solemn majesty of the bones, create a raw beauty on Yttygran which is undeniable.  

Top Image: Standing whale ribs on Yttygran Island. Source: National Ocean Service /  Public Domain

By: Bipin Dimri

References:

Whale Bone Alley. Available at:  https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/whale-bone-alley

Welcome to Whale Bone Alley - Siberia’s Eerie Answer to Stonehenge. Available at:  https://www.sciencealert.com/welcome-to-whale-bone-alley-siberia-s-eerie-answer-to-stonehenge

Comments

Pete Wagner's picture

Not really a mystery.  They need to sampe the soil for forensic DNA of the people who lived there, and logically built these shelters.  

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

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