Object: Harpoon

E/91/2/11
North Alaska Inuit, Alaska, United States of America
Materials: Whale bone, Ivory, Wood, Leather

There are two types of heads for harpoons, the non-toggling head and the toggle head.  This harpoon is of the toggling type that was invented by ancestors of the Inuit people, and it continues to be modified and used today by hunters from all around the world. It is suggested that the toggling head was first used along the Bering Strait, the narrow passage between Alaska, Russia, and the Aleutian Island, but the exact origin is highly debated.  However, among the uncertainty there remains one consensus; it changed the way sea mammals would be hunted forever.  The technology emerged to enhance hunting techniques, because, in the original design, the non-toggling harpoon, the head was fixed to the end of the shaft.  This was effective, but the design was not perfect.  Even though the head was barbed, it could still be dislodged from the animal.  The toggling head was invented to resolve this problem.

In the toggle harpoon the head detaches from the weapon but remains connected to the harpoon by a leather line.  Once the head has penetrated the animal the separation allows the head to rotate and become more securely fixed under the hide.  This technique gives the hunter more leverage to pull the animal from the water and to remain attached until the animal becomes tired.  Additionally, when the head detaches from the weapon, the harpoon does not break against the ice when the animal dives back under the water.

The toggle harpoon has a long history of success.  Its earliest prototypes in 5500 BC began to improve the living conditions of the hunters and their families with its added efficiency, and the invention remained mostly the same until the 19th century.  In 1848 Lewis Temple, a former slave and blacksmith, revolutionized the technology with the addition of the iron head.  Since then, the makeup of the shafts and other parts of the bodies of harpoons continue to be modified, but the toggling head remains a constant in all of the new designs.  This Native American invention transformed sea mammal hunting and continues to thrive over 7,500 years later. To see a toggle head harpoon in action watch the movie below.

Work Cited

Fitzhugh, William W. ed J Prusinski
2004 Old Bering Sea Harpoon. Arctic Studies Center.http://www.mnh.si.edu/arctic/features/croads/ekven10.html

Forbes, Jack D.
2007   The American Discovery of Europe. University of Illinois Press. Ch. 6-7 http://books.google.com/books?id=09tmdIA6cDoC&pg=PA133&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false
Glenbow Museum
National Park Service.
2008  Lewis Temple and His Impact on 19th Century Whaling. National Parks Traveler. http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/potw/lewis-temple-and-his-impact-19th-century-whaling
NOAA Ocean Media Center
2012   People of the Seal. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3TuC2erWFlI
Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
N.D. Whale Harpoons, or Temple Toggle Irons. On the Water. http://amhistory.si.edu/onthewater/
[Madi Sussmann]

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