A Tale of Ancient Harmony: The Remarkable Bond Between Thaua People and Orcas

For millennia, the Thaua people, a part of the Yuin nation in eastern Australia, held a unique and exceptional whale hunting strategy that hinged on a remarkable partnership with orcas. A recent study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Heredity sheds light on this extraordinary collaboration that thrived for generations. Thaua hunters discovered that by working alongside orcas in Australia’s Twofold Bay, they could efficiently locate and hunt whales. Some even sang to the orcas to encourage them to assist in herding the whales inland.

Once the whales were successfully hunted, a unique practice known as the “Law of the Tongue” came into play. The Thaua hunters would take the majority of the whale’s carcass, while the orcas claimed only the lips and tongue. This reciprocal relationship between the Thaua people and the orcas endured for centuries until the 1930s when the orcas mysteriously vanished from the region, marking the end of an extraordinary alliance.

Steven Holmes, a Thaua Traditional Custodian and coauthor of the study, provided insights into this remarkable practice. He explained, “My people had a long-lasting friendship with the beowa in Eden, especially Old Tom. My Nan, Catherine Holmes nee Brierly, told us about her great Grandfather, Budginbro, who, along with other Thaua, would swim with Old Tom, holding onto his dorsal fin. My ancestors were never hurt or injured.”

The exact origins of this unique partnership remain a mystery, but it is believed to have endured for thousands of years. Isabella Reeves, the doctoral student who led the study, emphasized the curiosity, strategy, and determination of orcas. Reeves stated, “I think what I’ve learned from killer whales is that they’re curious, they can be strategic, and when they want something, they know how to get it.”

One of the key figures in this extraordinary story was Old Tom, a 23-foot-long orca whose skeleton was the subject of DNA analysis almost a century after his time. Old Tom had served as a hunting companion to the Thaua people throughout his life, underlining the depth of the bond between humans and orcas.

Despite the arrival of British colonizers in Australia, the relationship between Thaua whalers and orcas persisted for about 150 years, attesting to its resilience and significance. However, in the 1930s, the orcas disappeared from the region, leaving a void in the partnership that had been integral to the Thaua people’s way of life.

The mysterious disappearance of the orcas puzzled researchers and the Thaua community for years. Through the analysis of Old Tom’s DNA and the invaluable knowledge passed down through generations of Thaua people, scientists have now concluded that the orcas in Twofold Bay are locally extinct. This discovery underscores the profound impact that human activities and environmental changes can have on ecosystems and the species that depend on them.

The relationship between the Thaua people and the orcas of Twofold Bay is a testament to the intricate connections that can exist between humans and the natural world. It serves as a reminder of the rich history and profound insights that indigenous communities hold about their environments and the species that inhabit them. This extraordinary partnership highlights the importance of preserving and respecting such relationships, even as we strive to understand and protect the delicate balance of ecosystems in the modern world.

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