Dr. Sarah Finkelstein
Julie Ross


A Long-Term Perspective: Paleoenvironments and Thule Social Change on Melville Peninsula, Nunavut

Melville Peninsula has been occupied for approximately 4000 years. Ethnographies indicate that the Inuit inhabitants of the area and their Thule ancestors primarily used the islands off the east coast of the peninsula and adjacent Baffin Island for hunting, and not areas on the peninsula and west of it. Meteorological studies indicate significant climatic differences between Melville Peninsula and the Baffin region; therefore climatic changes over past millennia may have had dissimilar impacts on these two areas. Thus, Melville Peninsula offers a unique opportunity to evaluate the interaction of climatic and social change in Inuit history. This project aims to reconstruct Thule socio-economic organization, to produce the first paleoenvironmental records from Melville Peninsula and to analyze these synergistically.

Part 1: Archaeology

Three archaeological field seasons were conducted at site NeHd-1 near Hall Beach.  During the fieldwork, a detailed map was completed of what remains of the site, two houses were completely excavated, and seven middens and an unidentified feature were tested.  The 2006 and 2008 seasons were conducted as joint Government of Nunavut and Inuit Heritage Trust field school for Nunavummiut high school and college students. With the invaluable assistance from graduate students from Memorial University and the University of Toronto, in total seventeen Nunavummiut students were taught archaeological excavation, screening, recording, and mapping techniques.

Architectural style, house position and orientation suggest that the site was used over a considerable period and may represent up to four separate occupations. This interpretation will soon be assessed with the support of radiocarbon analysis on materials from the middens. Currently the zooarchaeological analysis has been completed for the 2006 and 2007 field seasons. Both Tom Porawski and Sean Desjardins who conducted faunal analysis as part of their respective Masters degrees, have concluded that walrus dominate the faunal assemblages at NeHd-1. The availability of large amounts of walrus ivory for artifact manufacture could have contributed to the significance of the site.

In 2006, the over burden of house 15 was removed. The material culture has been identified by Karen Wittke and includes a variety of items including Tingmiujaq gaming pieces, pendants, harpoon heads, vessel fragments, and dog traces. There is artifactual evidence of a Dorset presence which is not a surprise since in a 1970s publication Father Mary-Rousselier reported on Dorset material sent to him from the site and indicated that most of the Dorset material had been bulldozed away. It is assumed that some of the graded area between the remaining features and the DEW line facility would have contained a more extensive Dorset component. Intact Dorset features remain, and in 2008 Karen Ryan confirmed the presence of likely Dorset houses directly behind the large Thule houses.

In 2007 it became evident that House 15 was the final resting place for eight Thule individuals. The community of Hall Beach, Inuit Heritage Trust and Government of Nunavut approved the completion of excavations with the condition that the individuals were reinterred. The cause of death is unknown; either starvation or disease could be candidates. The abundance of walrus at the site could also point to the cause of death; a traditional delicacy, Igunaq, which is fermented walrus meat, is known on occasion to cause botulism. As a result of the preservation and nature of the final use of the house, the quality and quantity of material culture is considerable and cataloging is still under way. In a strategic move to avoid encountering any more human remains, features 3 and 5 were excavated in 2008. The latter had been looted, as had many of the features on site; however the cultural material and architectural details are still able to contribute to the history of the site. Analyses of these materials are currently underway.

Part 2: Paleoenvironments

The goals of the paleoenvironmental portion of the project are to quantify the rate and magnitude of paleoclimatic changes for the period of Thule occupation, and to determine how past climate variability affected ecosystems. The research is providing the first paleoenvironmental records from Melville Peninsula in the central-eastern Canadian Arctic, and key information on the environmental context surrounding the Thule settlements under investigation. Furthermore, this region is situated near the transition between two modern climate regimes, thus may provide sensitive paleoclimatic records and new information on what determines spatial variability in past climatic changes.

To reconstruct past climates, we analyze lake sediment cores. Since sediments accumulate undisturbed in lake basins, these cores are archives for environmental changes that have taken place since the lakes' inception. The lake mud in the cores is analyzed in our laboratory for its chemical and physical properties, and for its microscopic biological remains. We focus on two main groups of biological remains: pollen grains as indicators of past vegetation, and a group of algae called diatoms, which indicate past changes in freshwater ecosystems.

In June 2008, we sampled small lakes out of a field camp in the vicinity of Sarcpa Lake, a former DEW Line site, about 100 km southwest of Hall Beach, Nunavut. These lakes, situated on the crystalline rocks of the Canadian shield and not influenced by coastal effects, are likely to produce reliable paleoclimatic records for this region. Sediment cores were obtained in two small oligotrophic lakes unofficially named SP02 and SP04, and have been dated using the radioisotope 210-Pb. Analyses conducted to date include loss-on-ignition (LOI) for estimations of percent organic matter (OM) and carbonate, as well as magnetic susceptibility as an indicator of periods of relative watershed stability. In-progress analyses are focussing on high resolution diatom and pollen-based reconstructions of variations in mean July air temperature and lake water pH.

Data obtained to date indicate variation between the two lakes in terms of paleoenvironments. The chronology supplied by 210-Pb analysis suggests differences in sedimentation rates between the two lakes, and a possible record of over 6,000 yrs for SP02, and 3,000 yrs for SP04, the smaller of the two. OM content in SP02 ranges between 0.9-10.5%, with maximum values between 40 and 30 cm depth, possibly coinciding with the warmer climate that existed before 5000 years ago, known as the Holocene Thermal Maximum. Decreases in OM may represent the subsequent cooling ("The Neoglacial"). Minimal OM values were recorded at 9 and 5 cm depths, possibly signifying the coolest periods of the Little Ice Age approximately 150 yrs ago. OM content in core SP04 is generally higher, ranging from 7-45%, with maximum values occurring in the most recent years. Both cores indicate an increase in OM within the last century, likely due to post-industrial warming. Magnetic susceptibility in SP02 ranged between 3.65 and 238.8 SI units. Maximum values represent periods of high energy and/or outwash, perhaps an immediately post-glacial environment, occurring in the lower-most sections of core SP02.

We also collected water samples for chemical analysis at the Sarcpa sites as well as at a series of ponds in the vicinity (within 5 km) of Hall Beach. At each of these sites, rocks and sediments were sampled for modern algal and pollen assemblages. The study of species-environment relations for this group of algae and for pollen is then used to interpret the fossil sequences found in the cores. Standard protocols and nationally accredited labs were used for water quality analyses. Water chemistry analyses indicate that the lakes around Sarcpa are nutrient poor, very dilute and around neutral pH. The ponds near Hall Beach have more nutrients, and more ions in solution. They are less acidic and have different types of algae. The comparison between these two locations is providing important new information on the distribution of these indicator organisms in the environment; this information is greatly needed to provide better climatic reconstructions for the Melville Peninsula, and for the Arctic in general.

Analysis of biological remains (algae for aquatic paleoenvironments and pollen for terrestrial paleoenvironments) are just beginning. We are presently preparing samples for submission for 14-C dating, and fortunately, some significant plant macro-remains have been found in one of the cores. The paleoenvironmental analyses are being conducted by two University of Toronto graduate students centrally involved in the project, Jennifer Adams and John-Paul Iamonaco, under supervision of Dr Sarah Finkelstein. This research forms the bases of the Masters degree theses of these two students.
These results confirm that paleoenvironmental indicators associated with the Sarcpa lake sediments may document Holocene climatic variability at multiple temporal scales. In addition, our results indicate that local effects can strongly influence the climate signal. Therefore, regional paleoclimate studies may result in an over-simplification and homogenization of Arctic environments. Studies at the watershed scale such as this one will improve on reconstructions of past environments in the Arctic.


The field school could not have happened with out the generous support of Nassittuq Corporation and the co-operation of the Inuit Heritage Trust. The assistance of Amelia Fay, Joshua Keddy, Tom Porawski, Karen Ryan, Elizabeth Qaunaq, Karen Wittke and Krista Zawadski during the field school was invaluable. We also acknowledge our major funding source, the Government of Canada Fund for International Polar Year, as well as logistical support from the Polar Continental Shelf Project, grants to students from the Northern Scientific Training Program, and supplementary funding from the NSERC Northern Research Supplement Program. We also thank the community of Hall Beach and the Hall Beach Hamlet office for logistical assistance and advice, and our bear monitors Joseph Piallaq and Jopa Allianaq.

Graduate Students
Jennifer Adams
Sean Desjardins
John-Paul Iamonaco
Tom Porawski
Karen Wittke


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