The Late Wisconsinan and Holocene Record of Walrus (<i>Odobenus rosmarus</i>) from North America: A Review with New Data from Arctic and Atlantic Canada


  • Arthur S. Dyke
  • James Hooper
  • C. Richard Harington
  • James M. Savelle



Pleistocene and Holocene fossil walrus, sea ice, deglaciation, climate change, archaeological faunas


The Late Wisconsinan and Holocene record of the Atlantic walrus is known from numerous collections of bones and tusks from Arctic Canada and south to North Carolina, as well as from many archaeological sites in the Arctic and Subarctic. In contrast, the Pacific walrus has no dated Late Wisconsinan or early Holocene record in North America, and it may have been displaced into the northwest Pacific at Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). The Atlantic walrus rapidly exploited newly deglaciated territory, moving northward from its LGM refugium and reaching the Bay of Fundy by 12 800 B.P., the Grand Banks by 12 500 B.P., southern Labrador by 11 500 B.P., and the central Canadian Arctic Archipelago (CAA) by 9700 B.P. Its southern range limit my have retracted to the Bay of Fundy by ca. 7500 B.P. Within the CAA, walrus remains clustered in two main age groups: 9700 to 8500 B.P. and 5000 to 4/3000 B.P. This pattern strongly resembles the distribution of bowhead whale radiocarbon ages from the same area, which suggests a common control by sea-ice conditions.

Walrus remains occur in Indian culture archaeological sites as old as 7500 B.P. and, in some cases (Namu, British Columbia, and Mackinac Island, Michigan), they evidently represent long-distance human transport. They are much more common in Paleoeskimo and Neoeskimo culture sites. However, they occur in very low abundances, and generally as debitage, in sites older than Dorset (2500 B.P.). The walrus, therefore, may not have been hunted by early Paleoeskimos. Beginning with Early Dorset, walrus remains occur in definite diet-related contexts. Middle Dorset (2300 to 1500 B.P. and late Thule (<400 B.P.) sites are missing from the High Arctic, and there may be a similar gap in the middle Pre-Dorset (3400 to 2600 B.P.). Sea-ice conditions at these times may have adversely affected availability of walrus and other marine mammal resources. Walrus is a prominent faunal element in Middle Dorset sites on the Labrador coast; this is consistent with a southward displacement of people and resources.