The first humans to learn the value of a whale probably made the discovery by accident. They most likely came across a beached whale or a whale carcass that had washed ashore. In an age when survival was part of daily life, finding a source of food and something that yielded material to make tools must have been an amazing event.
People learned how to use every part of the whale. They ate the whale’s blubber and meat. They wove its baleen into baskets or fashioned it into fishing lines or roofing material. They carved bones into tools and found uses for them as frames for structures. They used sinews as a binding material.
The practice of actively hunting whales goes back thousands of years to at least 3000 b.c. Archaeologists have found ancient tools in the Arctic, Japan, and Greenland that appear to be harpoons with ropes attached that probably were used for that purpose. Some of the first nations to be associated with whale hunting are Norway and Japan. Native people living in the Arctic—the Inuit and Inupiat—also have traditionally relied on whale hunting as a way to survive in the remote places that they inhabit.
Initially, whale hunts took place close to land. Once a whale was sighted, most likely when it came up for air and spouted, hunters probably set out in small boats to drive it closer to the shore. A whale trapped on a beach or in shallow water was easier to kill.