Okay, so a disclaimer: despite me being a so-called “video game enthusiast”, I have actually only played one out of the 12 games that make up the bulk of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Yeah, I know, feel free to boo me. That said, I was surprised to find out that I actually have more of a connection with the Assassin’s Creed franchise than previously thought. As Shay Cormac in Assassin’s Creed Rogue, you spend a fair bit of time travelling around the North Atlantic, visiting the many islands within that area…and along the way, you run into my favourite extinct species of all time – the Great Auk!
So, who is the Great Auk and why should we care? First of all…how dare you even ask? But seriously, I am extremely biased at this point as I have spent a lot of time with the poor extinct bird during my PhD. The Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) was a flightless bird that was, to be frank, an easy target for predators – especially humans, who hunted them for their meat and fat (Svanberg 2014, p. 311). The Great Auk appear to have been an important part of many local meals from as early as the prehistoric period (Best and Mulville 2013, p. 424), lasting until its extinction in 1844 (Serjeantson 2001, p. 43). Sadly, humans have a lot to answer for with regards to the extinction of the Great Auk, as overexploitation truly decimated its populations…however, it was natural history collectors who may have helped to deliver the final blow, as the demand for Great Auk remains for collections increased as populations decreased (Minteer et al., 2014).
Allegedly the last reported Great Auk was killed by sailors off of St. Kilda, who had feared that the poor bird was actually a witch (Galasso 2014). And while that may sound a bit strange, it seems to fit into a much older concept of the Great Auk that is still being explored through interpretations of ritual archaeology – for example, at the site of Broxmouth Hillfort in East Lothian, Scotland, skull fragments of a Great Auk were found alongside a nearly completed horse skull as part of a structured deposit near one of the entrances (Salvagno 2013, p. 473). As part of my PhD research in the Covesea Caves of Scotland, I have also found several instances of Great Auk remains (of really fantastic preservation as well, given the amount of surviving soft tissue observed on some bones!). As these caves have already been identified as potential sites of funerary and ritual activity from the Later Prehistoric Period and possibly as late as the Medieval Period, it is possible that these Great Auk remains were also significant for certain rites. However, there’s other possibilities (they may have been eaten, or they may just represent natural deposits) and not enough concrete evidence to give a confident interpretation right now (Fitzpatrick et al. 2020).
So, why does it matter that this extinct bird showed up in a video game? Besides just being a cool little detail, it is interesting to see the ways in which extinct species are revived digitally. Of course much has already been discussed by archaeologists who specialise in archaeogaming on the ways in which video games can be a form of digital reconstruction of the past (Reinhard 2018, p. 188 – 193), but I feel as though less attention has been placed on digital zooarchaeologies in this context, and I feel that Assassin’s Creed in general has been an interesting case study of digital reconstructions of the zooarchaeological record and how it allows players to engage with extinct or otherwise drastically changed animals from the past.
Anyway, #BringBacktheGreatAuk, am I right?!
Best, J. and Mulville, J. (2013) ‘Between the Sea and Sky: The Archaeology of Avian Resource Exploitation in Scottish Island Environments’, in Daire, M., Dupont, C., Baudry, A., Billard, C., Large, J., Lespez, L., Normand, E. and Scarre, C. (eds.) Ancient Maritime Communities and the Relationship between People and Environment along the European Atlantic Coasts. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 417-426.
Fitzpatrick, A., Bond, J., Büster, L., & Armit, I. (2020) A Brief Consideration of the Later Prehistoric
Appearance and Possible Significance of the Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) in the Covesea Caves of
North-East Scotland. The Glasgow Naturalist 27(2)
Galasso, S. (2014) When the Last of the Great Auks Died, It Was by the Crush of a Fisherman’s Boot. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/with-crush-fisherman-boot-the-last-great-auks-died-180951982/
Minteer, B. A., Collins, J. O., Love, K. E. and Puschendorf, R. (2014) ‘Avoiding (Re)extinction’, Science, 344, 260-261.
Reinhard, A. (2018) Archaeogaming: an Introduction to Archaeology In and Out of Video Games. Berghahn Books.
Salvagno, L. (2013) ‘Bird Bone’, in Armit, I. and McKenzie, J. (eds.) An Inherited Place: Broxmouth Hillfort and the South-East Scottish Iron Age. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, pp. 471-473.
Serjeantson, D. (2001) ‘The Great Auk and the Gannet: a Prehistoric Perspective on the Extinction of the Great Auk’, International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 11, 43-55.
Svanberg, I. (2014) ‘Great Auk’, in Hund, A.J. (ed.) Antarctica and the Arctic Circle: A Geographic Encyclopedia of the Earth’s Polar Regions. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, pp. 311.
Ubisoft Sofia (2014) Assassin’s Creed Rogue. Ubisoft.
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