The Mackenzie Inuit Whale Bone Industry: Raw Material, Tool Manufacture, Scheduling, and Trade


  • Matthew W. Betts



Mackenzie Delta region, Inuvialuit, Mackenzie Inuit, bone tools, bowhead whale, reduction sequence, whaling, scheduling, trade, tool production


The bones of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) were used by Mackenzie Inuit groups in producing a number of items essential to transportation and procurement. However, the whale bone industry, and its relationship to Mackenzie Inuit economic and social systems, is poorly understood. A recently excavated archaeological assemblage from McKinley Bay, Northwest Territories, provides a record of intensive Nuvugarmiut whale bone tool manufacture, which can be used to reconstruct a reduction sequence. Bowhead bone reduction at McKinley Bay focused on ribs, which were transversely worked into large sections. Cortical blanks were isolated from central rib sections, but proximal and distal rib sections were treated directly as blanks and preforms for the production of large durable tools, such as harpoon heads, adze sockets, mattock blades, and picks. The intensive whale bone reduction at McKinley Bay was part of a broader gearing-up strategy focused on the manufacture and repair of sleds and harpoons needed for the late winter migration and spring seal hunt. More generally, because the whale bone industry was intimately related to the bowhead hunt and its proceeds, it may provide fundamental insights about key aspects of coastal whaling societies, such as social organization, redistribution, and inter-territorial trade.