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ASC - Oracles - Arctic History

Arctic History

Adapted from a text by  Robert McGhee
Canadian Museum of Civilization

Have you ever wondered how and when the Inuit came to live in Canada and where they came from? We do not know all of the answers, but archaeology and Inuit legends provide us with some clues.

The Palaeo-Eskimo Period: 5000 - 3000 Years Ago

According to remains found by archaeologists, Palaeo-Eskimo people first appeared in western Alaska between 5000 and 4000 years ago (click here to see a map of probable migrations across the North). Their small camps were located along the coasts and on the inland tundra (click here to see a Palaeo-Eskimo tent site on Devon Island). Little remains now except the small flint tools and weapon points which were used for hunting caribou and seals. Similar kinds of flint tools were being made at this time by people living in eastern Siberia (click here to see a Palaeo-Eskimo chert scraper), which suggests that the ancestors of these people may have originated in Siberia and had recently crossed to Alaska. Bering Strait was at that time as wide as at present, 85 km, so the crossing was made either by boat or on the winter ice. Most archaeologists think that these people were not the direct ancestors of the Inuit.

At some time around 4000 years ago, some of these people began to spread eastward across Arctic Canada, probably moving slowly in small bands each consisting of a few families, attracted by the game. Within a few centuries they had spread over the Arctic islands as far north as Ellesmere, the coast of Greenland, and the mainland as far south as Lake Athabasca. We know that these first inhabitants of Arctic Canada were adapted to inland caribou and muskox hunting and coastal sea-mammal hunting.

Dorset Period: 3000 - 1000 Years Ago

The descendants of the first immigrants lived in the central and eastern Canadian Arctic until about 1000 years ago (click here to see a partially excavated semi-subterranean Dorset house on Sugluk Island, Hudson Strait). They had little or no contact with the Alaskan Eskimo people to the west, who had richer natural resources, and they gradually changed the styles of their tools and weapons, adapting their way of life to the harsher conditions and fewer resources of Arctic Canada (click here to see a Dorset harpoon head). In their camps we find ivory snow-knives and small soapstone lamps, which suggest that they had learned to build snow-houses and to heat them with seal oil. Ivory and bone sled-shoes show that they used sleds for winter travel, but we do not know if these sleds were pulled by dogs. Archaeological evidence suggests that kayaks were also used. The Dorset people were fine artists, as can be seen from the painted wooden masks used in religious activities, the miniature ivory carvings of men and animals (click here to see an ivory carving of a polar bear), and the faces carved on rocky outcroppings.

Archaeologists call these people the Dorset Palaeo-Eskimos, because their remains first ap-peared in a collection at Cape Dorset on Baffin Island (click here to see a map of the known distribution of Dorset culture people, 3000 - 1000 years ago). Inuit legend tells of an ancient race called the Tunit, who lived in the Canadian Arctic before the ancestors of the present Inuit arrived. The Tunit lived in large stone houses, similar to those found at some old Dorset settlements. According to legend they were a strong, gentle, and rather simple people. It seems likely that the legendary Tunit are the people who left the Dorset culture remains across much of the central and eastern Canadian Arctic.

Thule Period: 1000 - 300 Years Ago

About 1000 years ago the Arctic climate became warmer for a few centuries. The amount of sea ice decreased, and large whales migrated to the Arctic seas in greater numbers. A new group of Alaskan Inuit who had learned to hunt these whales from open skin boats (umiaks) along the north coast of Alaska soon spread eastward across Arctic Canada and into Greenland, in pursuit of their prey (click here to see a map of the known distribution of the Thule culture people, 1000 - 300 years ago). These were the Thule Inuit, named after a settlement in northern Greenland where their remains were first identified (click here to see Thule culture artifacts). The ability to hunt whales gave these people a richer way of life than that of the Dorset inhabitants of the Canadian Arctic. Dorset people seem to have disappeared from most of Arctic Canada at this time; only in northern Quebec do Dorset people appear to have survived until about 500 years ago.

Legend says that the Tunit were killed or driven away by the ancestors of the present Inuit. In Greenland, the Thule invaders met, traded with, and fought with the Norsemen who arrived from Europe at about the same time.

The remains of Thule villages, usually consisting of the mounds of several winter houses built of sod over a framework of stones and whale bones, are scattered throughout Arctic Canada (click here to see a Thule period winter village on Somerset Island). The people who built and lived in these villages were the direct ancestors of the present Canadian Inuit.

Historic Period: Last 300 Years

Between about 300 and 100 years ago, the Arctic climate was colder than it is at present. Increased sea ice prevented large whales from entering the central Arctic seas, and the Thule whaling industry was destroyed (click here to see a map of Inuit distribution, 1850 - 1920). The descendants of the Thule people simplified their tools and weapons and adjusted their way of life to the reduced resources available to them. In the area between Labrador and the Mackenzie Delta they left their permanent coastal winter houses and began to spend the winters in snow-houses on the sea ice hunting seals at their breathing holes.

During this period, European whalers, traders and missionaries began to appear, bringing new tools and ideas and contact with a different way of life (click here to see historic period artifacts) . By fifty years ago, all Canadian Inuit groups were to some extent involved in European-Canadian society.

We still know only the bare outlines of Inuit history. The whole story can be learned only by archaeology, through the careful excavation and study of old camps and villages. If these old camps are destroyed, or dug up by untrained people, the chance to complete the story will be lost forever.


Group of Copper Inuit snowhouses with a ship of the 1915 Canadian Arctic Expedition in the background, MNC 37020

THINGS TO DO AND FIND OUT

What is tundra? What is the difference between the environment found in Alaska and Greenland and that of the Canadian Arctic? What effect do you think this would have on the size of the population in each area? By visiting a museum or shop, try to find a carving made by a modern Inuk from the bone of a whale that might have been hunted by the Thule people.

FURTHER READING

Dumond, Don E. THE ESKIMOS AND ALEUTS. Thames and Hudson. London, 1987.
Jenness, D. PEOPLE OF THE TWILIGHT. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1959.
McGhee, R. CANADIAN ARCTIC PREHISTORY. Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull, 1990.
McGhee, R. Ancient People of the Arctic, UBC Press, Vancouver, 1996 .
Morrison, David and George H├ębert Germain Inuit, Glimpses of the Arctic Past.. Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull, 1995.

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