Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/June 1896/Dr Hansen's Throwing Stick



THE report that reached us last February to the effect that Dr. Nansen's adventurous expedition had actually succeeded in reaching the pole, naturally set everybody to reviewing the reasons which led him to adopt his peculiar plan. Among the facts which led him to believe that there was a steady current flowing westward across the pole, there has been frequent mention of an Alaskan throwing stick picked up on the southwest coast of Greenland.

Many have doubtless wished to know what a "throwing stick" is, and how it could be thought to give such conclusive evidence of a drift from western America to Greenland. As I had a hand in collecting and working out the evidence that made this little piece of wood so valuable, I propose to try and answer these two questions.

In the first place, a "throwing stick," "throwing board," or "spear thrower," as it is sometimes called, is a contrivance for casting a javelin or harpoon, which is employed by various savage races, such as the Australians, some South American tribes, and especially by the Eskimos, among whom its use is almost universal. Roughly speaking, it is a narrow grooved board a foot or so long, with one end cut into a handle and the other provided with a stud or spur for the butt of the spear to rest against. It is used thus: Grasping the handle as he would a sword, the man fits the shaft of the spear into the groove, with the butt resting against the stud, steadying the spear with the finger. Then, extending his arm and bending back his hand till the spear lies horizontal, he aims at the mark and propels the weapon by a quick forward jerk of the stick. In this way I have seen the Eskimo boys casting their forked javelins at wounded waterfowl.

There is a very large number of Eskimo throwing sticks in the National Museum at Washington, collected from all the different branches of the race. These have been very carefully studied by Prof. Otis T. Mason, one of the curators of the museum, and he has found that these implements differ greatly from each other in their details, while all are made on the same general plan. For instance, one kind will have a plain handle, while another will have projecting pegs, or holes or sockets, to give a firmer hold for the fingers, and so on.

Moreover, he has shown that each division of the Eskimo race has its own pattern of throwing stick, so that, with the help of his illustrations, one. can tell, on seeing a throwing stick, whether it came from Greenland or Hudson Bay, or from Alaska, and even what part of Alaska it came from.

I had spent two years among the Alaskan Eskimos when I was one of the naturalists of the Point Barrow Expedition in 1881-'83, and was especially interested in anything concerning them, particularly about their implements and weapons, as I had roade a thorough study of these while preparing the report on the ethnological results of the expedition. Consequently, my curiosity was immediately aroused by a little notice that I accidentally ran across in the Norwegian scientific paper Naturen. Speaking of the meeting of the Videnskabs-selskab (Scientific Society) of Christiania, on June 11, 1886, the paper said that the curator of the museum exhibited a throwing stick found among driftwood at Godthaab, Greenland, different from those used in Greenland, but just like those used in Alaska. It was suggested that it had made the same journey as the "Jeannette relics" found at Julianehaab. Now, I have heretofore been inclined to be rather skeptical about the "Jeannette relics," but here, it seemed to me, was something that could be corroborated. I felt sure that if I could see the specimen, or a good drawing of it, I could, with the help of the museum collections (I was employed at the Smithsonian Institution at the time), make absolutely sure whether it was Alaskan or not.

At that time I was in correspondence with Dr. Rink, the famous authority on the Eskimos of Greenland, since deceased, but who was then living in Christiania. So I wrote to him for information, and soon received all that I wanted, with a carefully drawn outline of the specimen. There was no doubt about it at all! It was perfectly Alaskan in pattern, and, moreover, so like specimens from a certain region near Bering Strait that one could almost be certain that it came from there, I at once wrote to Dr. Rink, telling him of my conclusions.

On the strength of my identification of the specimen Dr. Rink published an article in the journal of the Danish Geographical Society, reviewing the whole history of the implement, and in doing so produced more evidence of the authenticity of the "find." It seems that Dr. Rink picked up the specimen himself while serving as an official of the Danish Government at Godthaab. This at once disposes of any suspicion of its being a "plant." It was lying on the beach among the driftwood, and though he and his Eskimo companions recognized it as different from anything used in Danish Greenland, he laid it aside without paying particular attention to it, fancying it came from East Greenland, as it is well known that the driftwood found on the west coast of Greenland comes down the eastern shore with the current and turns up round Cape Farewell. He kept it till 1886, when the museum at Christiania received a valuable collection of Eskimo implements from East Greenland, collected by the expedition of Captain Holm and Lieutenant Garde. He then gave his "throwing stick" to the museum, as probably coming from the same region. To his surprise, it was found entirely different from the East Greenland implements, and the Norwegian traveler Jakobsen, who had spent many years in Alaska, suggested the resemblance to the Alaskan pattern, which gave rise to the notice that I saw in Naturen.

So, from all this, two things were pretty certain: First, that the stick was made in Alaska; and, second, that it was picked up on the beach at Godthaab. Now, how could it have got there? It surely could not have drifted round by way of the Northwest Passage, for that way is barred by such a network of islands that the stick would undoubtedly have been stranded long before it reached Greenland.

Some people have said, "A sailor on an American whaleship might have brought it home with him from Bering Sea, and taken it to Greenland," but any one who is familiar with the customs of American whalemen knows that the same ships never go to the North Pacific and to Davis Strait, and that very few men in the fleet have been to both regions. Moreover, the American whaleships keep over on the other side of the strait. It is very unlikely that the stick could have reached Godthaab in that way. As for the suggestion which has been made that it was dropped somewhere off the Atlantic coast from a ship coming home to New Bedford from Bering Sea, that may be dismissed in a few words. If it were dropped near shore, it would fall into the inshore current and drift south; while if it were dropped farther off, the Gulf Stream would take it to Iceland or Norway.

But it is well known that a current sets north through Bering Strait into the Arctic Ocean, and that north of the strait the current moves steadily westward, as shown by the drift of the Jeannette. It is very easy to believe that the stick drifted in this way, keeping on till it met the current that sweeps down between Iceland and Greenland, and then turned northward again round Cape Farewell. Indeed, it is hard to see how it could have got there otherwise.

So this is the way that the finding of this little piece of wood came to be a link in the chain of evidence that led Dr. Nansen to form his adventurous plan of trusting his stout little vessel to the current which he believed would take him over the very pole.

For my part, I believe that he was right, and that, even if the present rumor turns out to be untrue, there is a very good prospect that he will attain his object.