Humans and seals in the Baltic Sea: interactions in a changing environment

Project leader

Funding source

Swedish Research Council - Vetenskapsrådet (VR)

Project Details

Start date: 01/01/2016
End date: 31/12/2018
Funding: 4500000 SEK


The Baltic Sea region underwent dramatic geological and climatic changes during the middle and late Holocene, especially between 8000-3000 years BP, which are assumed to have affected both seal and human populations. Exploitation of aquatic resources was of great significance for the subsistence of the early hunter-gatherer societies of the Baltic region but also for the later coastal hunting and fishing societies of the Pitted Ware Culture and to a lesser degree for the Bronze and Iron Ages societies in the same region. Since the subsistence of prehistoric hunter-gathering or semi-agricultural societies were fully or partly dependent on and adapted to their environment, any environmental changes could have had an immense impact on their subsistence strategies.

This project explores the mutual interaction between humans and seals in a diachronic perspective under periods of climatic change. More specific, it explores to what extent climatic changes can be reflected in human and seal populations, how past climatic changes could have affected seal populations in the Baltic basin i.e. increases, decreases or even extinctions, how these climatic changes are reflected on the physiology of seals and humans, and how humans responded to these changes in terms of subsistence and hunting strategies.

Fluctuations in modern seal populations has gone from being interpreted mainly as a function of human hunting pressure towards an interpretation mainly based on responses to climatic change. It is time to introduce a modified picture on how these factors interact and where both climatic changes and human hunting strategies, including their perception of a changing world, are taken into account.

The novelty of the project is that it has a multidisciplinary approach as it combines an understanding of seal ecology, climatology with the anthropological responses to these focusing equally on seals and humans. Our methodological approach includes analytical tools from archaeology, archaeochemistry, zooarchaeology and ecology. Our methodological focus is multi stable isotope analysis of teeth and bones from seals and humans from selected archaeological sites covering the entire Baltic Sea region and chronologically expanding from the Mesolithic to the Iron Age. Particularly, oxygen isotope analysis will be utilized as a proxy for detecting climatic and geological fluctuations as we assume that any climatic change which had an impact on seal populations would be reflected in the oxygen isotopic signature of both seals and humans. Data on faunal remains from the selected archaeological sites will be collected in order to explore variations in seal abundances in space and time. Isotopic data, chronological data (radiocarbon dating of bones), environmental data and anthropological data reflecting material culture in terms of hunting tools, ceramics and anthropogenic figurines will be integrated in a final diachronic synthesis.

The project´s duration is scheduled for three years. The analysis will be performed at the Archaeological Research Laboratory, in close cooperation with the Stable Isotope Laboratory, Department of Geological Sciences and Vegacenter, Museum of Natural History, where the isotope analysis of bone and tooth collagen will be carried out.

The proposed project is an innovative project that, it takes advantage of recent scientific developments, changes the methodological focus and aims to offer new insights to prehistoric human subsistence and to shifts in the ecology of seals. By studying effects of past climatic changes on seals we provide for the first time data on how climatic changes have affected top predators in the prehistory, which we know have large cascade effects on whole ecosystems. In this sense, the project will provide the research community with new knowledge with focus on marine mammal physiology, diet, habitat use and movement from the Baltic Sea, not as separate entities but in mutual connection.

Last updated on 2017-27-07 at 13:19