The First Explorers of the High Arctic

o12f15.jpgThe first people to reach Ellesmere Island were the Palaeo-Inuit culture that spread across the Arctic from Alaska about 4,000 years ago. These people were attracted to Ellesmere Island by animals such as musk ox and caribou, but they also practiced coastal sea-mammal hunting in what is now Smith Sound. The descendants of these first people developed the culture referred to by archaeologists as the Dorset culture between 3,000 and 1,000 years ago. It is believed that these people used sledges for winter transportation but it is not known if they used dogs. Archaeologists have however, found evidence suggesting that they also used kayaks.

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Early Palaeo-Eskimo Maskette
This 2,250 B.C. ivory maskette recovered from a tent floor at the Icebreaker Beach site on Devon Island, N.W.T.
Source: www.civilization.ca

The first people to reach Ellesmere Island were the Palaeo-Inuit culture that spread across the Arctic from Alaska about 4,000 years ago. These people were attracted to Ellesmere Island by animals such as musk ox and caribou, but they also practiced coastal sea-mammal hunting in what is now Smith Sound. The descendants of these first people developed the culture referred to by archaeologists as the Dorset culture between 3,000 and 1,000 years ago. It is believed that these people used sledges for winter transportation but it is not known if they used dogs. Archaeologists have however, found evidence suggesting that they also used kayaks.

Between 1,000 and 1,200 years ago the Arctic climate went through a period of warming. This allowed for a greater number of large whales to migrate further north in the Arctic Ocean. At this time there was a group of Alaska-Inuit who had learned to hunt these whales from open skin boats, also called umiaks. These people, who later became known collectively as the Thule culture, spread from Alaska across the Arctic and settled Ellesmere Island and the north coast of Greenland around 900 years ago.

The ability of the Thule Inuit to hunt whales gave them a more secure and richer way of life than the Dorset Inuit. The Dorset Inuit disappeared from the High Arctic or were absorbed by the Thule-Inuit at this time. The Thule-Inuit were the first Inuit culture to meet Europeans. Norse Vikings had settled Greenland at the same time as the Thule and these groups traded and fought each other in northern Greenland until the Norse colonies disappeared in the late 15th Century.

The High Arctic climate experienced a period of cooling from about 1450 to the end of the 18th century. The big whales no longer managed to migrate as far north as they used to in the Arctic Ocean. The Thule Inuit therefore had to adapt to the new climate and their activities on Ellesmere Island decreased. At this time contact between the Inuit of Baffin Island and the Inuit of northwest Greenland almost ceased.

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Group of Copper Inuit snowhouses with a ship of the 1915 Canadian Arctic Expedition in the background, MNC 37020 Source: www.civilization.ca

As a result, two different Inuit cultures developed. The people of northwest Greenland developed into what we now refer to as the Inughuit. From the contact period to the present “the people with the most enduring relationship to Ellesmere Island have been the Inughuit. They are the most northerly branch of the Inuit, hence, the most northerly people of the world.” (Dick, 2001) Today, therefore, we make a distinction between the Inuit of Baffin Island and the Inughuit of northwestern Greenland.

Sources:
Lyle Dick, Musk ox Land: Ellesmere Island in the Age of Contact, (University of Calgary Press: 2001)

Robert McGhee, Arctic History, Archaeological Survey of Canada, http://www.civilization.ca/cmc/archeo/oracles/eskimos/12.htm

For further Reading:
McGhee, R. Ancient People of the Arctic, UBC Press, Vancouver, 1996.

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