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The polar bear

The polar bear (Ursus maritimus Phipps, 1774) was extensively hunted for its fur or for a trophy. You can find more information about the species on Worms (World Register of Marine Species), on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and on the websites of the Norwegian Polar Institute and MOSJ (Environmental Monitoring in Svalbad and Jan Mayen).

On our page, we provide you with a glimpse into the historical archives. What do the documents of old tell us about the polar bears around Svalbard?


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21. July 1596

So saghen wy twee Beyren … ende wy hadden gantsch gheen gheweer… ende wy sochtent te ontloopen, maer die Schipper weerhielt ons, segghende: die eerst beghint te loopen, dien sal ick meet dees Bootshaeck (die hy hadde) in zijn huilt steecken, want tis beter dat way by malcanderen blyven, ende proeven oft wy haer met ons roepen vervaert moghen maken, also ginghen wy soetgens ende ghestadich nae de schuijt toe, ende ontquament also, wel verblijt zijnde dat wy den kattendans ontspronghen waren, ende dat wijt vertellen mochten

De Veer, G. (1598). Waerachtighe beschryvinghe van drie seylagien, ter werelt noyt soo vreemt ghehoort. (V. Roeper & D. Wildeman, Eds.) (Facsimile 1997). Franeker: Van Wijnen.

So we saw two bears … and we had no rifle … and we tried to run away, but the skipper stopped us. He said that whoever starts to run first, he’ll stick our boat hook in our skin because it’s better to stay together and try to confuse them with calls. So we went leisurely to the boat and escaped, glad that we had got away from the cat dance and that we could report about it.

Firstly, the odds between humans and bears were still quite even when Barentsz and his men first explored that part of the Arctic. Secondly, the skipper gave very sound advice: the guides on tourist vessels still give very much the same advice today – but we don’t know of any who are still allowed to use the boat hook!


9. May 1609

… whereupon we looked vp, and saw three great ones. Whereupon I made a stand, and gaue each of my companie some Aquavitae, and a little Bread, and told them, that wee must not in any case seeme fearefull, because the nature of them is such, that whosoeuer semmeth fearefull, or offereth to runne away, they will seize vpon him.

Jonas Poole. Diuers voyages to Cherie Iland. In: S. Purchase (1625) Purchase his pilgrims. The third part. p. 561

As with the Dutch quote above, this English advice on how to behave near polar bears is solid, too. Especially when in a group. Modern equivalents, however, don’t seem to involve aquavit and bread.



Ihre Häuter werden zu uns gebracht / und seynd bey Winters=Tagen den reisenden angenehm. Sie richten die Häute in Spitsbergen also zu / sie machen Sägspäne heiß / zertreten die Häute damit / darin ziehet die Feiste / und das Fell wird trucken / wie man mit feinen Lein / Fettflecken aus den Kleidern macht / so mans gegen die Sonne hält.

Martens, F. (1675). Spitzbergische oder Groenlandische Reise Beschreibung gethan im Jahr 1671. Hamburg: Gottfried Schultßen. P. 73

Their skins are brought to us and are pleasant to travelers in winter days. They prepare the skins in Spitsbergen by heating sawdust, trampling the skins, drawing out the fat, and drying the skins by holding them into the sun. Just like removing grease stains from fine clothes.

The question on how different animal products were prepared in Svalbard is an important one. Information like this quote help archaeologist to know what material remains of processing to look out for.