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[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #11: Auk, Great

February 11, 2021

In 2021, I am blogging an A-Z compendium of human interactions with species in the British landscape. A list of references for information used in this series can be found here. Today’s entry is the first animal, and a relatively recent extinction.

Auk, Great

Pinguinnus impennis (Linnaeus, 1758)

Also known as garefowl

Illustration of a great auk from Thomas Bewick's History of British Birds, showing a tall black and white bird on a  small rock in the sea
Great Auk illustration by Thomas Bewick in A History of British Birds, 1804. Public Domain

An extinct oceanic bird, roughly the size of a goose, and most closely related to the razorbill. It was flightless, and by no means agile on land, although its muscular wings made it powerful underwater. It spent most of its life at sea, only coming onto land to breed. By 1844 it was thought to be globally extinct, the last pair being killed in Iceland that year to be mounted and sold to collectors, although there is an unconfirmed record of a pair on Belfast Lough in 1845. It is the only bird that has become extinct in Europe in the last 500 years. The most recent historic records came from the remote island of St Kilda. Great auk bones are present at over 60 archaeological sites in Britain, such as in Mesolithic middens on the Scottish island of Oronsay, where it was one of the most frequently recovered bird species. The earliest find to date is a great auk humerus, found at the c. 500, 000 year old site of Boxgrove in West Sussex.

Because the bird only came ashore to breed, it is assumed that people caught and killed them during the brief period of time they were on land. According to Martin Martin writing of them on St Kilda in 1698, this period was only 6 weeks, from mid-May to late-June in the modern calendar. In addition to St Kilda, it is thought that they bred on Holm of Papa Westray, and also on the Calf of Man.

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