Did Romans Hunt Jonah’s Whales Into Extinction?

Hashem provided a huge fish to swallow Yona; and Yona remained in the fish’s belly three days and three nights. Jonah 2:1 (The Israel Bible™)

An archaeological dig in Gibraltar may have Biblical significance, indicating that whales were far more common in the Mediterranean than previously thought. If confirmed, it will lend credence to the story of Jonah’s encounter with a large fish, identified by Biblical commentaries as a whale, while giving hope that the pre-Messianic return of whales may still take place.

Academics from the Archaeology Department at the University of York in northern England, reported their discovery of ancient whale bones in the university newsletter on Wednesday. The bones were discovered in the ruins of five Roman fish processing factories located at the strait of Gibraltar  During the Roman era, Gibraltar was home to a large fish processing industry from 400 BCE-500 CE and the ruins of hundreds of factories with salting tanks can still be seen across the region. The find was unusual in that whale bones are difficult to identify in archaeology since they often fragment. In addition, whale hunters frequently process their catch at sea, leaving no clues for historians and archaeologists.

Using ancient DNA analysis and collagen fingerprinting, the researchers identified the bones as belonging to the North Atlantic Right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) and the Atlantic Gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus). Until their findings brought proof these species were common in the region, it was assumed that the Mediterranean Sea was outside of the historical range of the Right and Gray whales.

Co-author of the study Dr. Camilla Speller, from the University of York, said in the report, “Our study shows that these two species were once part of the Mediterranean marine ecosystem and probably used the sheltered basin as a calving ground.”

Lead author of the study Dr. Ana Rodrigues, from the French National Centre for Scientific Research, said, “Romans did not have the necessary technology to capture the types of large  whales currently found in the Mediterranean, which are high-seas species. But Right and Gray whales and their calves would have come very close to shore, making them tempting targets for local fishermen.”

The researchers suggested that the Roman passion for unusual food led to the whales being aggressively hunted to feed the vast empire. Whales, including massive Humpbacks and Fin whales, are still found in the Mediterranean basin but the researchers assume that the Romans hunted the Right and Gray whales in the region into extinction.

Dr Rodriguez added: “It seems incredible that we could have lost and then forgotten two large whale species in a region as well-studied as the Mediterranean. It makes you wonder what else we have forgotten.”

The Right whale, also known as the Black whale, is a highly endangered species. They were the preferred targets of whalers because of their docile nature, slow surface-skimming feeding behaviors, their tendency to stay close to the coast, and their high blubber content. They are currently one of the most endangered species of whales with fewer than 50 individuals remaining off the coast of eastern North America and fewer than 100 living in the western oceans. Normally migratory, they can grow up to 59 feet in length.

The Gray whale is slightly smaller, reaching 49 feet in length. It has completely disappeared from the North Atlantic and is now restricted to the North Pacific. However, on May 8, 2010, a sighting of a Gray whale was confirmed off the coast of Israel in the Mediterranean Sea, leading some scientists to think they might be repopulating old breeding grounds that have not been used for centuries.

Rabbi Shaul Judelman, former director of the Ecology Beit Midrash, a religious study group focused on the environment as it is treated in classical Jewish sources, is intensely interested in the religious implications of man’s relationship with the environment. He noted that it may not be happenstance that whales are the flagship cause for preservation of species and also have a distinctive role to play in the future geula (redemption).

A whale is referred to in Hebrew as ‘leviathan’ which, Rabbi Judelman explained, is referred to in the Talmud (Tractate Baba Batra 75a). In the Talmud, it is written that God originally produced a male and a female leviathan. God became concerned that in multiplying, the species would destroy the world. God killed the female, preserving her flesh for the special banquet that will be given to the righteous on the arrival of the Messiah. That banquet will be held inside a huge tent made from the leviathan’s skin.

“Civilization and economy has taken something that God set up in the world and destroyed it,” Rabbi Judelman said to Breaking Israel News. “That should be a serious message to someone who believes that God created the world and set man to guard over it. We need to pause and ask if something good or something bad happened here.”

Rabbi Judelman quoted a verse in Psalms to emphasize his point that preservation of species is a Biblical imperative.

May the glory of Hashem endure forever; may Hashem rejoice in His works! Psalms 104:31

“We have a midrash (homiletic teaching) on this verse that teaches that all of the plants, each species, prayed to God after creation,” the rabbi explained. “All of creation understood that each species praising God makes Him happy. Biodiversity is really a way of praising God. The charge of protecting each species is something a spiritual person should be attentive to.”

Rabbi Judelman noted a connection between the exile and thoughtless destruction of the environment.

“The Romans were the power that brought the first exile,” Rabbi Judelman said. “It came from a desire to rule even at the expense of destroying. They came from Esau, who hunted out of an intense desire to consume.”

Judelman speculated that the archaeologists’ conclusion that these two species, now extinct in the region, could have played a role in the Messianic vision described in the Talmud.

“The rabbis certainly identified this trait of devouring and over-consuming in the Romans,” said. “Perhaps they even witnessed them hunting whales into extinction just for the sake of a new flavor and out of this experience set the return of the leviathan as a necessary part of geula.”

It could be that the ultra-rare whales long to return to their Biblical breeding grounds. Describing that sighting of the 40-ft. Gray whale off the coast of Israel in May 2010, Robert Brownell, a prominent cetacean researcher, called it “the most amazing sighting in the history of whales.” Alisa Schulman-Janiger, who runs a Gray whale census and behavior project in Southern California for the American Cetacean Society, said the sighting was “the equivalent “of finding a dinosaur in your backyard–it was that unbelievable.”

Though whale sightings are not unknown in the region, six weeks ago a Blue whale, the largest animal on earth, was seen for the first time off the coast of Eilat in southern Israel.

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