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CVI - The Arctic - 1000 B.C. - A.D. 1400)

Dorset Palaeoeskimo Culture (figure)
(1000 B.C. - A.D. 1400)

The stylistic elements of Pre-Dorset artifacts changed gradually over the second millennium B.C., but it appears that the rate of change accelerated rapidly after 1000 B.C. The mid-passage arrangement associated with Independence I camps was resurrected as new styles of houses or tents appeared. This type of structure may have been preserved in some areas of the High Arctic or in Greenland by descendants of the Independence I people, who once again occupied the High Arctic about 1000 B.C. At this stage of their history, they are identified by archaeologists as the Independence II culture. Dorset houses were larger than those of the preceding groups and were sometimes semisubterranean, excavated several centimetres into the ground (figure). Rather than using skin, these people appear to have built more permanent structures with walls of turf. In contrast to Pre-Dorset sites, which contain only rare examples of small, round lamps, Dorset sites commonly yield rectangular or oval, thin-walled soapstone lamps that once heated their owner's homes. One gets the impression that, at least during the winter, the Dorset people were distinctly more comfortable than their Pre-Dorset ancestors (figure).

Larger than those of Pre-Dorset cultures, Dorset archaeological sites appear to reflect more permanent occupation by a denser population. This was perhaps the result of advances in hunting technology, which allowed more efficient exploitation of the environment. Indeed, in addition to the soapstone lamp, several new elements of technology appear at this time. These include bone implements that have been interpreted as snow knives, specialized tools that may have been used for cutting snow blocks for the construction of snowhouses. Given the simultaneous increase in the use of blubber lamps, such structures would have been useful. Also found at the sites are sled shoes, strips of bone or ivory designed to be pegged to the bottom of wooden sled runners in order to protect them on rough ice or gravel. These, along with a few finds of dog bones, suggest that the Dorset people may have used dogsleds. A few ribs from kayaks or kayak-like boats have been found, and many Dorset sites are located in areas where kayak hunting would have been profitable. Harpoon heads continued to develop, with the open channelled sockets of the Pre-Dorset period gradually being replaced with closed sockets gouged in the base of the heads. Although these new styles of harpoon heads do not appear to be more efficient than the older ones, some Dorset groups seem to have been great hunters of walrus and small whales -- perhaps as a result of more efficient watercraft.

Manufacturing techniques also changed. The burins of the ASTt period -- the tools used for all basic carving of bone or ivory -- were replaced by burin-like tools of ground flint, which probably held their edge longer and were more easily sharpened. Knives of ground slate became common and may have been more efficient butchering tools than the chipped stone knives of earlier centuries. But there were also some rather surprising deletions from the toolkits of the Dorset people. While their Pre-Dorset ancestors had made holes in wood, bone or ivory with drills, probably hand-held twist drills, all Dorset perforations were made by laboriously gouging a slot with a burin-like tool. While there is quite good evidence of the use of the bow and arrow in ASTt times, no definite bow equipment or arrowheads are found for the Dorset period. The reasons for these absences are not understood.

Dorset technology, however, does appear to have been in general more efficient than that of their forebears. During the period 800 to 500 B.C., it seems to have spread across arctic Canada, including the High Arctic and northern Greenland, which was occupied by the Dorset- like Independence II people. By 500 B.C., or shortly after, Dorset people had extended their range of occupation down the coast of Labrador to the island of Newfoundland, where they seem to have formed the primary occupation for approximately the next 1,000 years. The only arctic area that they did not occupy was the Barren Grounds west of Hudson Bay, perhaps because this region had been reoccupied by Indian groups that they could not displace.

The culmination of Dorset culture occurred in the period between A.D. 500 and 1000, when their area of occupation was most extensive and they produced a unique and rather astonishing art. A few small ivory carvings representing people and animals are known from Pre-Dorset culture, but these objects appear to have been carved more frequently during the Dorset period. In the later centuries of the Dorset culture, however, the number of carvings appears to have increased dramatically. Whereas many of the carvings are naturalistic representations of humans, bears (figure), and other animals and birds, many are stylized objects that are generally interpreted as being associated with the magic performances and ceremonies of the shaman (figure). Wooden masks (figure) and drums, carved ivory sets of animal teeth meant to be inserted in the mouth, and intricately carved ivory tubes or "soul catchers" may have been used by the shaman during magic healing or hunting ceremonies. Miniature harpoon heads and figures of humans or bears, with holes in their chests into which are inserted slivers of wood or red ochre paint, may have been used in acts of white or black magic. The functions of many of these implements, whose forms appear to have been standardized over wide areas, are totally unknown.

The late Dorset people began to build large structures that can most likely be interpreted as ceremonial centres. These take the form of rectangular boulder enclosures that measure up to forty metres by seven metres. Lines of isolated hearths are associated with the structures but do not seem to have been used as parts of houses. Some of these features, found in arctic Quebec, have been misinterpreted as Viking "longhouses." We do not understand why the Dorset people built these structures or why an apparent florescence of artistic activity occurred at this time. There is a possibility that it may have been influenced by the historical events of the time, when the Dorset people, whose culture had developed in the isolation of the Canadian Arctic over the previous 3,000 years, found themselves being intruded upon by alien peoples: the Greenlandic Norse, who may have made occasional forays into the eastern Arctic in the period around A.D. 1000, and the ancestors of the Inuit, who were moving eastward from Alaska at about the same time. Whatever the cause, this final flowering of Dorset culture also marks its end. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Dorset occupation of most of arctic Canada ended around A.D. 1000, at roughly the same time that the ancestors of the Inuit began to move eastward from Alaska. Only in arctic Quebec, which the Inuit did not reach until several centuries later, do we have evidence of the survival of Dorset culture until as late as A.D. 1400.

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Created: February 29, 2000. Last update: July 20, 2001
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