At Jiepmaluokta, near Alta in north Norway, each step down the path to the sea represents a decade or two along a timeline of changes that began about 14,000 years ago, at the end of the Ice Age. The land there was lifted from the sea by isostatic rebound, the rising of the land freed from the pressure of a mile-thick ice-cap. I went there at the end of May, on the last day of The Long Spring. I stopped at a group of massive, sea-smoothed rocks that emerged from the waters about 6000 years ago, and now lie eighty-five feet above the shore. When people first arrived there, they discovered a place imbued with a magic or a utility we cannot perceive today. They gathered here from distant settlements, and the shoreline rocks became their message-boards. They chiselled images into the fine-grained, grey-green sandstone using quartzite nibs: reindeer, moose, whales, bears and people. In all, about 3,000 known petroglyphs were made over a period of about four thousand years.
To walk the path from Alta Museum to the sea is to travel in time, downhill to the present. One rock, lying about sixty feet above the shore, emerged from the sea between 4200 and 5300 years ago. There are ghosts on this rock, hieroglyphs of gone birds, with messages to the future. It is a small rock, with a handful of reindeer, and three high-sided boats with moose-heads at the prow. And there are great auks, four of them. I was not expecting to come face to face with great auks, a bird that became extinct when the last pair were killed in Iceland in 1844. The guidebook has a photograph of the auk-glyphs, describing them as “probably geese”. But they have thick bills, shorter necks, legs positioned towards the rear, giving them an upright posture; one is flapping its paddle-wings, quite unadapted for flight, and has a man’s hand round its neck. It is either a very bad drawing of a goose, or a pretty good one of the extinct great auk.
A USA-based research institute, Revive & Restore, which attempts “genetic rescue” for endangered and extinct species, want to recreate the species and gradually restore it to the wild coasts of the north Atlantic. The scientists believe they can extract great auk DNA from museum specimens and sequence the animal’s entire genetic code, or genome. Those genes that distinguish the great auk from other species would then be edited into the cells of its nearest living relative, the razorbill. Fertilised embryos would be implanted into a bird big enough to lay a great auk egg, such as a goose.
Laurence Rose is a conservationist, writer and composer. He has worked for the RSPB since 1983.