Dr. Max Friesen


Environment and Society during the Thule Migration

In order to understand how the Thule Inuit migration unfolded, we must reconstruct how Thule people lived, travelled, and interacted in different regions across the Arctic.  Environment and Society during the Thule Migration is intended to understand the early Thule period in the Cambridge Bay region of southeastern Victoria Island, Nunavut. This region is vital for answering some key questions in Thule culture history, for two main reasons. First, it is located on one of two possible routes from Alaska to the east (the other route runs north of Victoria Island). Second, the Dorset people who preceded Thule Inuit lived in this region until at least the early 13th century, leading to the possibility that Dorset and Thule came into face-to-face contact here. Ultimately, the goal of this project is to reconstruct the chronology, economy, and social organization of early Thule occupations in this region in order to understand the mechanisms which allowed Inuit to successfully colonize a new environment. This program of fieldwork is based on close consultation with the Kitikmeot Heritage Society (KHS), an Inuit cultural organization consisting primarily of elders who seek to link oral history, archaeology, and modern Inuit youth. The KHS and the University of Toronto have been developing joint projects near Cambridge Bay since 1999. 

During the two IPY field seasons of 2007 and 2008, the research team worked in three separate areas.  First, is a joint archaeology and traditional knowledge camp at Huluraq, an important location at the east end of Ferguson Lake, approximately 50 km northeast of Cambridge Bay.  Elders in Cambridge Bay have prioritized the collection of oral histories and archaeological survey at this site, due to its long-term importance to the region’s Inuit history.  For five days, 11 elders plus several other community members traveled to Huluraq by helicopter with Max Friesen and three archaeology graduate students.  During that period, elders were interviewed about life in the old days at Huluraq and the area around it.  Huluraq was an important camp used as a stopping place during travel between the Cambridge Bay area and Albert Edward Bay, and was also a very important fishing location.  An archaeological survey revealed that the peninsula on which Huluraq is situated is covered with archaeological features, which also extend east to the top of a nearby hill. At least 69 caches are present, and interviews with elders identified most of them as intended for fish.  In addition, there are the remains of at least 36 tent rings, with both rectangular outlines representing canvas tents and earlier, circular outlines representing skin tents.  Other feature types include fish drying racks, hunting blinds, and surface scatters of animal bones and artifacts.  Finally, we recorded two very large boulder features which probably represent Thule Inuit winter houses.

Second, in 2008 we excavated the Pembroke site, which is the earliest Thule Inuit site currently known in the Cambridge Bay region.  Pembroke is located on a high knoll next to Freshwater Creek, the major char river which flows into Cambridge Bay.  The site contains five small winter houses, and five warm season structures which are visible as high-walled, well-built tent outlines.  Above these ten dwellings, on top of the knoll, is a large karigi, a communal structure which is much larger than any other feature.  We excavated two winter houses, both of which were built of boulders with floors made out of flat flagstones.  One of them was occupied for a very brief time, based on the fact that it contained very few artifacts and animal bones.  The second house had two separate floors, so was probably occupied for at least two years.  We also excavated one tent ring, which appeared very simple on the surface, but which turned out to be quite deep and contained more artifacts than either of the houses.  This tent ring probably represents a fall occupation.  Finally, we excavated the karigi.  Once we cleared the upper rocks away, we found the remains of a rock bench which originally ran around the inside of the entire structure.  In sum, Pembroke is an excellent example of a short occupation by Inuit who were in the process of travelling through the region, probably on their way to areas further east.
The third component of this project is directed at the Late Dorset period.  In particular, over 20 Late Dorset longhouses have now been recorded in the Cambridge Bay area, several of which have been dated to 1200 AD or later.  This intense Late Dorset settlement activity lasts until around the time Thule Inuit arrive in the region; therefore it is possible that these two cultures came into contact.  In 2007, we surveyed the coastline west of Cambridge Bay, during which we recorded a new longhouse site and re-visited several very large longhouse sites originally recorded by William E. Taylor.  In 2008, we returned to several of these sites, and also recorded a new longhouse south of Cambridge Bay at Cape Colborne.  At all sites, longhouses were measured, and caribou bones were collected to allow radiocarbon dating – these dates will be crucial for understanding whether Dorset and Thule people may have met at any of these sites.


Many thanks to the following organizations for funding and logistical support, without
which this research would not have been possible; Government of Canada Program for IPY,
Polar Continental Shelf Project, Northern Scientific Training Program, and Kitikmeot
Heritage Society

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