Research exposes ancient bond between people and sharks

January 29, 2013

The tooth was from a great white shark. It was found next to a human bone. Why were they buried together some 1,500 years ago? For the archaeologists who made the discovery along the southeast coast of Nova Scotia, it was an intriguing mystery that has led to a fascinating theory.  

The shark tooth and human jaw bone were uncovered from a shell midden in 2010 by crew members on a Canadian Museum of History archaeological dig in Port Joli, Nova Scotia. Following a standard protocol, Mi’kmaw elders from the Acadia First Nation, who were collaborating on the excavation, performed a traditional ceremony and the remains were reburied without further disturbance or investigation. But the director of the dig, Dr. Matthew Betts of the Museum of History, recalled that great white shark teeth had been recovered in 1970 from a 4,000 year old cemetery excavated in New Brunswick. His curiosity was piqued. 

In collaboration with colleagues at the University of New Brunswick, Betts combed through documents and museum collections searching for more evidence of archaeological shark teeth in the Maritime provinces and adjacent American states. They discovered that dozens of teeth have been recovered, and nearly all were associated with burials or ritual deposits; even more importantly, the teeth came from sites ranging between 4,000 years ago to about 500 years ago, when Europeans first contacted the Mi’kmaq.

To an archaeologist interested in human relationships with animals, this was an irresistible mystery—why were great white sharks considered to be so special that their remains were placed with human burials, and why did the relationship apparently persist for so many millennia? The researchers began to unravel the mystery by focusing on what ancient humans were doing when they interacted with sharks.

“As early as 4000 BP, people began hunting swordfish from dugout canoes,” says Betts, “which brought them into direct contact with sharks. Though diets changed over time, the ancestors of the Mi’kmaq continued to hunt species such as seals and cod which were known prey of great whites. Because they were hunting the same resources as sharks, they were constantly coming into contact with them.”

This repeated interaction, Betts believes, is the key to understanding the relationship between humans and sharks. He says sharks were hunting the same prey as humans, but much more efficiently, and the teeth were likely used to acquire some of the unique predatory abilities of sharks. But he believes that the symbolic nature of the tooth was likely even more important to the ancient Mi’kmaq.

“In many aboriginal cosmologies animals are viewed as people,” he says. “In this case, sharks were people who were doing the same thing as humans on the ocean. This would have created a close spiritual bond between humans and sharks, and the shark tooth may have come to symbolize this relationship as well as both species’ close connection to the sea. In short, sharks were viewed as brothers and the shark tooth may have come to represent the maritime way of life.” 

A detailed study of this research was recently published by Betts and his colleagues in the journal American Antiquity.