For thousands of years, the Thaua people — members of the Yuin nation in eastern Australia — had an exceptional whale hunting strategy, a new study in the peer-reviewed Journal of Heredity described.
Thaua hunters learned that they could work together with orcas in Australia’s Twofold Bay, helping lead them straight to their prey. Some Thaua hunters even sang to the orcas to encourage them to herd whales inland.
Steven Holmes, Thaua traditional custodian, and coauthor, said that after the hunters had killed the whales the orcas ate only their lips and tongues while they took the rest. Holmes said that the practice was known as the “Law of the Tongue.”
This relationship lasted for generations until the 1930s — about 150 years after British colonizers arrived in Australia — when the orcas vanished from the region.
For a long time, it was unclear what became of the orcas. But thanks to DNA analysis of a 23-foot-long orca skeleton from almost 100 years ago and knowledge from the Thaua people, scientists now believe the species is locally extinct.
Isabella Reeves, a doctoral student who led the study, told Live Science that it’s unclear exactly how the relationship between the Thaua whalers and orcas first began — but it likely existed for thousands of years.
“I’ve discovered that killer whales are curious and strategic. They know what they want, too.
Reeves’ skeleton was called Old Tom. He had served as a hunting companion all the way until his death, Holmes wrote.
” “My people have a lasting friendship with beowas in Eden and Old Tom is no exception,” Holmes wrote. “My Nan, Catherine Holmes nee Brierly, told us about her great Grandfather, Budginbro, who along with other Thaua, would swim with Old Tom, holding on to his dorsal fin. My ancestors were never hurt or injured.”