A stretch on the northern tip on remote Yttygran Island in Siberia has become a macabre kind of tourist destination, and it’s easy to see why. Enormous whale ribs, jawbones, ribs and vertebrae stand horizontal in the ground forming an eerie alleyway. There are only guesses as to what its original purpose was, but it definitely stands as one of the weirdest places in the world.
Consisting of hundreds of whale bones, mainly jawbones, ribs, and vertebrae, Whale Bone Alley is thought to have been created in the fourteenth or fifteenth century by a cooperative group of native Inuit tribes. Many of the bones (some in excess of five metres high and weighing 300 kg) were placed in excessive rows along the shore giving the site its evocative name. The overall effect is that of a haunting titan’s boneyard.
This astounding setup of whale bones (and stones) was found by researchers in 1976, but there were no traces of any human settlement at the site – or any direct connection with any nearby village. However, the scale of the construction suggests that a large group of people participated in the creation of the Whale Alley. But for what reason?
Since archaeologists found what seem to be the remains of a sacred site near the bottom of the “alley”, they believe that the complex was established as a central shrine of mutual worship by various united tribes in the region. Some speculate that it may have had a ritual purpose, perhaps playing host to sporting events and initiation rites. Others think perhaps it marks a place of common trade that existed outside of the tribal feuds and violence known to the area.
However, this hypothesis may simply be a case of seeing smoke without fire. The locals in the area, many of whom are descended from the peoples that created the site, believe that Whale Bone Alley was nothing more than a gathering place where hunters could come together and butcher their catch as a group.
This seems to be underlined by the large square pits found on the site with fossilized whale bits still in them – essentially ready-made, in-ground refrigerators – used by the gathered tribesmen to keep their catch fresh – for common feasts or, rather, for trading purposes(?)
The latter idea isn’t totally without merit, as many Neolithic sites around the world were constructed as marketplaces. Take the Castlerigg Stone Circle, located in Cumbria, North West England, for example. Dated to approximately 3200 BCE, the site is believed to have served as a marketplace for the Langdale axe industry of the same period. Indeed, erecting stone monuments to mark a location important for one reason or another was a common ancient human practice. But then stone, and the ability to quarry, carve and transport it, were somewhat rare in the isolated cold of northwestern Siberia. So how about using whale bones?
One thing is sure: there are no traces of any settlement or direct connection with any village on the site. Still, the scale of the construction suggests that a large group of people participated in the creation of Whale Bone Alley. The kind of meat pits that are located at the sanctuary are usually used by one family each. The number of families equals the number of families that used the site. Archaeologists found about 150 pits on the site, which is a lot for small northern peoples, since the largest village in this region of Siberia had about 50 people altogether.
Interestingly, local Inuits completely ignore the structure, which causes confusion among scientists because these people deeply respect their customs and the memory of their ancestors. That is rather strange because the construction of this monument required tremendous efforts if only one bone is five meters long and weighs about 300 kilograms. According to scientists, it took about 50 bowhead whales to create the monument, so…
Whichever reading of the area’s history is correct (if any), one thing is definitely true of the site: tourists love it. The stunning bone formations have been attracting more and more tourists from all over the world each year. In fact, Whale Bone Alley has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and as such should survive long enough to become a well-known stop on any Siberian excursion.