Prehistoric NW Indians hunted fur seals of sustainable basis

Archaeological evidence from prehistoric hunters in Washington and Alaska adds new fuel to the ongoing debate over the belief that humans have a propensity to over-exploit their natural resources, and also indicates that early Indians' harvest of northern fur seals was sustainable.

"The research clearly indicates that over-exploitation is not a universal characteristic of subsistence economies," said Michael Etnier, who earned his doctorate in anthropology from the University of Washington last month. His work also reveals evidence of previously unknown rookeries, or breeding colonies, of the seals (Callorhinus ursinus) on or near the Washington coast and on or near the Alaskan Peninsula. The findings come from his not-yet-published doctoral dissertation.

Etnier's results have potentially important implications for managing the seals, which were heavily hunted for their fur beginning in the late 18th century. The United States' purchase of Alaska in 1867 was prompted in part by the desire to control the lucrative fur seal trade. The animals have been studied and managed for more than 150 years, first by Russia and then the United States.

Northern fur seals are large marine mammals (mature males can weigh between 700 and 800 pounds) whose current range is largely restricted to high latitudes of the North Pacific Ocean. The animals spend most of their lives at sea, but breed and give birth to their pups on land. The largest rookeries of northern fur seals are in Alaska's Pribilof Islands in the central Bering Sea. Mature males tend to remain in the North Pacific while females and juveniles migrate perhaps as far south as Baja California. However, in 1968 a rookery was established naturally on San Miguel Island off of Santa Barbara, Calif.

Russians began commercial hunting of the animals in the late 1700s and a large colony of seals was exterminated by 1833 on the Farallon Islands off San Francisco. Recent analysis of seal bones from hunti

Contact: Joel Schwarz
University of Washington

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