December 3, 2023

Scientists may have had a breakthrough that will help solve a decades-old mystery involving ancient bear bones discovered in the Aleutian Islands, in Alaska.

Brown and polar bear bones dating back thousands of years were discovered on Alaska’s Unalaska and Amaknak islands in the early 2000s—But bears have never lived on those islands. The polar bear bones are about 5,500 years old, while the brown bear bones could be between 3,000 and 5,500 years old, scientists found after subjecting them to carbon dating, KUCB reported.

Lilly Parker and Kaylee Tatum, researchers at the University of Oklahoma, have spent two weeks in Unalaska trying to get to the bottom of the strange finding, and while the mystery remains, they are pursuing one theory that bear carcasses were brought to the islands by people as a source of food.

The sites where the bones were found were once used as dumping grounds by the Unangax̂ people—the indigenous people of the Aleutian Islands, KUCB reported.

POlar bear
A file photo of a polar bear walking on ice. Polar bear and brown bear bones were found on islands in Alaska, despite there being no records that they ever lived there,

“They were just kind of in a jumble, in a mix of other remains,” Parker told KUCB. “There were around 23,000 animal bones found at the sites.”

Tatum told KUCB that in this investigation “anything is helpful. Whether it’s a story that you heard around the campfire as a kid and you barely remember it … I still care. I still want to hear that.”

Unangax̂ elders told the two researchers that they were also unsure as to how the bones got there.

One theory is that thousands of years ago people brought bear meat to the islands from Unimak—a neighboring island that did have its own population of the animals. While there are no historical records confirming this, oral tradition suggests people may have eaten bears that long ago, KUCB reported.

While they haven’t been able to confirm that practice, it’s something for the researchers to go off as they continue hunting for clues. The theory would make sense as other types of food may well have been scarce there during the long, harsh winters.

The scientists are planning to return to the island next year to attempt to gather more data on the bones.

The next steps are to look for genetic clues that could link the bears found on Unalaska and Amaknak with the bears that used to roam Unimak, KUCB reported.

Newsweek has contacted the researchers for further comment.

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