beaver,  museum

When the past obscures the past

If I asked someone to tell me why they think beavers were hunted in the past, I think the most likely answer would be ‘for their fur’. As I’ve done research on the partial extinction then reintroduction of the European beaver, I’ve come to realise more and more that this answer has to do with the North American beaver (Castor canadensis) in early modern Canadian colonial environmental history than the European beaver (Castor fiber). I think that the importance of the Canadian beaver for the fur trade in the 17th century to make fashionable wide-brimmed felt hats has made us think that this was always why beaver had been killed.

Summary of reasons given for the extinction of the European beaver in the UK in 137 articles (1997-2010)
Summary of reasons given for the extinction of the European beaver in the UK in 137 articles (1997-2010)

This is apparent if we look at news coverage of the beaver reintroduction efforts in Scotland (see graph). I did some analysis of 137 newspaper articles from 1997 (when the beaver reintroduction was proposed) to 2010. What I found was that a majority of the articles say that beaver extinction in the UK was caused by hunting. In nearly a third of the articles, a specific use of the hunted beaver is given–and almost always that is for its fur. Killing the beaver for castoreum only gets a mention in one-sixth of the articles and meat shows up in only 4 articles. When it is specified, hunting for fur tops the list of reasons given for why beaver became extinct.

Certainly beavers were used for fur before the 17th-18th century boom in beaver fur for felting. We know that there was an earlier felting industry in Russia: medieval evidence from the 12th century attests to a thriving fur industry, which included beaver, in Novgorod. In the article ‘Om Bäfverns Natur, hushållning och fångande’ (On the beaver’s nature, household and capture) from 1756 by Nils Gisler, he mentions that beaver skins are sold by the people of Jämtland to Norwegian traders so we know beavers in Scandinavia were caught and their fur sold. But Gisler spends the majority of his text on castoreum and meat. He comments about the best time of the month and the year to catch beaver to maximize the gall contents. He notes that everyone who catches beaver eats the beaver meat (which tastes like pork according to him), and beaver tail is both eaten and used medicinally. In the medieval literature, the beaver is always discussed as a source of medicine and meat, never as fur. While this doesn’t mean that the fur went unused, I think it should make us pause and reconsider why European beavers were hunted to extinction.

One of the many jars of castoreum canadensis (Castoreum from North American beavers) in the Pharmacy Museum in Riga, Latvia.
One of the many jars of castoreum canadensis (Castoreum from North American beavers) in the Pharmacy Museum in Riga, Latvia.

If you look at old apothecary collections, castoreum is ubiquitous. In April, I visited the Pharmacy Museum in Riga, Latvia, and containers of castoreum were included in almost every set. These were all labeled as castor. canadens., indicating that the castoreum came from Canadian beavers, which makes sense considering that they are from the 19th century when there weren’t really any beavers left in Europe. According to Illuminerade figurer till Skandinaviens Fauna (1832), castoreum of European beaver was stronger than the North American one which was typically found in apothecaries of the time, so if you could find it, it was better. I’ve written about my experience drinking castoreum liquor and the use of castoreum as a medicine. I’ve since discovered it was a typical ingredient in early modern recipe books, like The practice of physick in seventeen several books (1655) which includes castoreum in a number of recipes related to women’s reproductive issues, diseases of the joints, and fevers. According to Johann Schröder’s Zoologia: or, the history of animals as they are useful in physick and chirurgery (1659), castoreum is

profitable in the Lethargy, Apoplexie, Epilepsie, Palsie, Vertigo, trembling of the members, defluxions to the joynts, suffocation of the matrix, the Colick both inwardly and outwardly used. Moreover it helpeth the noise of the ears, and difficulty of hearing (put into the ear) and the toothach.

I plan to look deeper into the medicinal uses of castoreum sometime, but for now, it is sufficient to say that it was a common medicinal ingredient.

Probably one of the best soups I've ever had -- beaver tail soup in Tartu, Estonia
Probably one of the best soups I’ve ever had — beaver tail soup in Tartu, Estonia

As for use as a food, I’ve previously written about beaver as Lenten fare and its other culinary uses. Earlier in the spring, I had a fabulous beaver tail soup at the Eduard Vilde restaurant in Tartu, Estonia. Perhaps it was similar to the medieval recipes for vegetable soup with beaver meat. If so, then I can see the attraction of beaver meat as a food.

Again, I’m not saying that European beaver fur wasn’t a valuable commodity, but fur wasn’t the only–and perhaps not even the primary–reason they were hunted to extinction. I think in the case of the beaver, Canadian colonial history has dominated the way we think about the historical relationship between humans and beavers, even though the relationship may have actually changed over time. Sometimes a particular past obscures another past.

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