Ambergris, the rare effluvia of a tiny minority of sperm whales, occasionally washes up on the beach and makes someone quite wealthy. Although perfumers now use a synthetic version, the real thing is rare enough to be prized. It’s been that way for hundreds of years, as ambergris’ many uses were known a long time before its origin was pinpointed.
Though ambergris has been traded since at least the Middle Ages, we still know remarkably little about the substance. Even the fact that it originates from sperm whales is a relatively recent discovery. For hundreds of years—even as beachcombers were finding ambergris washed up on shore and sailors were recovering the substance from carcasses—naturalists and physicians treated the theory that whales produce ambergris as outlandish. Ninth-century Muslim travel writers proposed that whales likely consume a substance produced elsewhere and later regurgitate it, a view that remained in circulation for several centuries.
The Hortus Sanitatis, an encyclopedia of herbal medicines published in 1491, cited theories that ambergris was tree sap, a type of sea foam, or some kind of fungus. In the 12th century, reports from China suggested ambergris was dried dragon spittle. It has at various times been proposed to be a fruit, fish liver, or a precious stone. According to a 2015 paper from the Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, “By 1667, eighteen different theories existed on this matter and various animals were considered producers of this substance—including seals, crocodiles, and even birds.”
While we now know that ambergris is produced by a whale’s gut, the exact process is still being debated. However, the global trade in ambergris and the clandestine ways it continues today is quite a story in itself, which you can read at Hakai magazine. -via Smithsonian
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