1,500-year-old bone of giant auk found by archaeologists in early medieval Scotland

By Ben Miller | 12 May 2014

A bone of a giant auk, last seen in Scotland 174 years ago, tells a tale of extinction driven by human hunting

A photo of a man holding up a small bone from the wing of a bird on parkland
A great auk bone has been found at the Scottish Seabird Centre© Rob McDougall
A bone from a penguin-like, metre-tall bird which flew between the north-east of the US and northern Spain before going extinct more than a century ago has been found at North Berwick’s Seabird Centre in the first trace of the great auk since their kind disappeared from Scotland in 1840.

Flightless and known as Scotland’s dodo, the upper arm bone of the bird was found at the entrance to an early building in a dig which found the remains of butchered seals, fish and seabirds.

A close-up photo of a small bone from an extinct bird's upper arm
The distal right humerus of the auk, sent to predation by hunters© Rob McDougall
It has been radiocarbon dated to between the 5th and 7th centuries, when it was relentlessly hunted to the point of becoming the most feted of taxidermy specimens, prized as food, an oil source and the provider of eggs which were collectors’ trophies.

“It is both ironic and sad that a bone from a globally extinct seabird has been found on our site,” reflects Tom Brock, the head of the Centre.

“This discovery is a very useful warning from the past to this, and future generations – we must look after our wonderful wildlife as a priority.”

Known for its stubby wings, the auk passed through Britain and France during its transatlantic journeys.

“In the last two decades there has been a renaissance in our understanding of the archaeology and history of early Medieval Scotland,” says Rod McCullagh, the Senior Archaeology Manager at Historic Scotland.

“The discovery of the remains of domestic buildings and the associated detritus of daily life at North Berwick gives us a glimpse of what ordinary life was like in East Lothian at this time.

An image of a diagram of part of the upper arm bone of a bird
© Addyman Archaeology / Marion O'Neil
“That daily life involved the killing of such valuable birds as the great auk is no surprise but the discovery of this bone perhaps attests to a time when hunting did not overwhelm such a vulnerable species.”

Tom Addyman, of Edinburgh-based team Addyman Archaeology, also believes the bones could hold important lessons.

“The discovery of the great auk bone is an illuminating find as we seek to understand and document the importance of the area in the history of wildlife and human habitation in the Middle Ages,” he says.

“We hope that its discovery helps historians and conservation experts, such as the Scottish Seabird Centre, to educate future generations about the precious nature of our natural resources.”

Brock feels the discoveries make the Centre’s current preparations for Puffin Fest – the first event of its kind in Scotland – “very appropriate”.

“Puffins are closely related to great auks,” he says.

“This provides an opportunity for people to appreciate and understand the importance of looking after Scotland’s seabirds and marine life.”

  • Puffin Fest runs from May 16-26 2014. Visit seabird.org for full details.

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A photo of a large seabird standing on a rock against a black background
© National Museums Scotland
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humans have left a disgusting legacy on this planet, overrun with people, extinctions. love to hear that the human population is in decline
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