Chukotka Autonomous Okrug

Whale Bone Alley

Whale Bone Alley is one of the most impressive and mysterious sights in Chukotka. Archaeologists found this unique monument of the ancient Eskimo culture on Yttygran Island in 1977. The island, now uninhabited, is located in Senyavin Strait, near the southeastern tip of the Chukotka Peninsula. The alley most likely was once a sanctuary for whalers: two rows of huge bowhead whalebones stretch along the northern shore for about half a kilometre. The size and complex structure of this building are striking.

The bones of 5–6 dozen adult whales were used to create the Alley. Closer to the shore, gigantic skulls at least 2 m wide and 1.5 m high are placed in a row. The narrow front parts of the skulls are buried into the ground, while the backs of the heads are raised up. They are divided into 15 groups with 2–4 skulls in each. Parallel to the skulls, there is a series of massive pillars of jawbones with diameters of about 0.5 m and a height of up to 5 m. One such jaw weighs 250–300 kg, and it would take the effort of several hunters just to lift it.

Address: Chukotka Autonomous District, Being Sea, Yttygran Island
Site on the map

In the space between the skulls and jaws, there are about 150 meat pits (to store provisions), and in some places, the remains of the contents can be seen. Next to the pits, there are stone rings. A man-made stone road about 50 m long leads from the meat pits along the slope of the hill to a flat round area surrounded by a ring of boulders. In the centre of the site, there is a large flat boulder, not far from which is a stone hearth with traces of ash.

The outlines of all parts of the structure are geometrically defined, that is, the structures did not expand spontaneously, but were erected systematically. An additional set of whalebones was found under a layer of pebbles near the water's edge, which means that the sanctuary was originally even larger. In this case, only the skulls and jaws of whales were used. No other parts of the skeletons were found: neither ribs nor vertebrae. This means that the whales were not killed on the island, but the huge bones were specially brought.

The archaeologists who discovered the sanctuary suggested that it was created in the 14th century when the ancient culture of the Bering Strait whalers reached its prime. It is known that in Alaska, Eskimo whalers united in large fishing groups led by the most skilled hunters. Similar alliances could have existed in Chukotka. It is possible that the Whale Alley was a kind of 'club' for such a group: the hunters came to Yttygran Island to conduct their rituals and share their experience. According to scientists, Whale Alley was the central sanctuary of a large association of hunting communities.

Judging by the structure of the Whale Alley, there were two types of rituals on Yttygran. All who arrived on the island participated in rituals, competitions and feasts on the shore. The main rite took place on the round stone platform, where only the initiated were allowed.

The sanctuary at Yttygran was used for about two hundred years, until the 16th century when whaling fell into decay due to a sharp cold snap. Whales were less likely to swim to high latitudes, and the rituals of large whaling parties lost their relevance. The Whale Alley was gradually abandoned and forgotten. No information about it was found in Chukchi and Eskimo folklore.

Yttygran Island, like the large Arakamchechen Island to the north, is now uninhabited. There used to be an Eskimo village, Siklyuk, but in the middle of the 20th century, its inhabitants moved to the mainland. All this time, the Whale Alley was perceived as simply part of the coastal landscape, without attaching special importance to it. An expedition of the Institute of Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR discovered the monument by accident: scientists were exploring the coast of Chukotka, and their ship was sailing past the island in the fog. When the fog suddenly cleared, they saw an amazing picture: on the shore, there was a multitude of huge whalebones, embedded vertically into the ground...

Even now, not all the riddles of the Whale Alley have been solved.

As you'd probably guess, getting to Whale Alley is difficult. The easiest way is by cruise ship. Another option is to fly by plane from Anadyr to the village of Providenie, and then down a dirt road in an off-roader for 85 km, or by helicopter or motorboat to the village of Yanrakynnot in the Providensky region of the Chukotka Autonomous District. From there, by sea to Yttygran Island.