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Hunting ancient walrus genomes

Uncovering the hidden past of Atlantic walruses (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus)
PhD ceremony:Ms X.A. Weber
When:January 28, 2021
Supervisors:prof. P.D. (Peter) Jordan, PhD, prof. dr. M.T. Olsen
Where:Academy building RUG
Hunting ancient walrus genomes

Humans and walruses have co-existed in the Atlantic Arctic for at least six thousand years. Humans have hunted walruses as sources of food, fuel and material (e.g. bone, ivory or hide). The intensity and method of walrus hunting has changed over time, and also varied across the North Atlantic. The size, connectivity and diversity of walrus populations is likely to have also changed over time and geographic area, both in response to human activities but also environmental factors such as climate. This thesis explores the timing, nature and potential triggers for changes in Atlantic walruses over the last few thousand years by integrating archaeological knowledge, cutting-edge ancient DNA methods and our understanding of walrus biology.

The results presented in this thesis provide insight into how the populations of walruses that we know today across the North Atlantic arose following climatic cycles over the last 30 000 years. Additionally, ancient DNA analyses, when combined with radiocarbon dating and historical analyses, reveal the impact of intensive hunting by the Norse during the Viking Age driven by the demand for valuable goods such as walrus ivory. This impact was the the local extinction of a unique lineage of walruses on Iceland. This thesis also includes chapters that make a contribution to the analytical methods and approach used in archaeological and ancient DNA studies, particularly with regard to determining whether bones are from male or female seals/walruses, and how well preserved (and hence suitable for ancient DNA analyses) certain bones or teeth might be.There are however, many more questions remaining, which can best be resolved if we bring together research and methodologies from many different fields.