This web site provides an overview of the International Polar Year (IPY) project "Dynamic Inuit Social Strategies in Changing Environments: A Long-Term Perspective" (shortened to "Dynamic Inuit Societies in Arctic History"). This project was developed through the International IPY structure, and funded by the Government of Canada Program for IPY.
Through six separate fieldwork programs which combine archaeology, traditional knowledge, and the study of ancient environments, our research team is exploring the impacts of climate change, cultural interaction, and Inuit social organization on the “big picture” of Inuit culture history over the past millennium in the eastern North American Arctic.
Background: Long-Term Patterns in Inuit Culture History
Inuit have lived in the eastern Arctic (Arctic Canada and Greenland) for at least 800 years, their culture having developed in Alaska and eastern Siberia during the preceding centuries. Although the Inuit past in the eastern Arctic is complex, two main historical processes have shaped modern Inuit society. First, is the migration from Alaska to the east by the earliest Inuit, known as “Thule”, a rapid event which replaced populations of the earlier, and culturally very different Dorset tradition. Second, is the transformation of Thule Inuit, leading to the diverse and dynamic Inuit societies of today.
The first of these processes, the Thule migration, remains poorly understood. We do not yet understand why early Inuit decided to migrate, although three main reasons have been proposed. First, the most popular explanation revolves around the importance to Thule Inuit of the huge bowhead whales whose bones are very common in many Thule settlements. This explanation is often linked to climate change, since the Thule migration happened during the Medieval Warm Period, a period of reduced sea ice which probably led to very high bowhead populations. A second explanation for the Thule migration links it to a search for metal – especially iron which early Inuit are known to have obtained from meteorites in northern Greenland, as well as from early Norse settlers in Greenland. Finally, a third set of explanations for the Thule migration emphasizes factors back in their Alaska/Siberia homeland. Early Inuit groups there were organized into distinct regional groups, with warfare and other forms of competition common. It may be that these factors forced some families to leave, with many choosing to explore the eastern Arctic.
Following the Thule migration, the second major process in Inuit history is the transformation from Thule to modern Inuit; a process which started around 1400 AD in some regions. This was a complex and varied process, which involved regional population movements, changing hunting patterns, and the introduction of new forms of technology. The rate and nature of change varied across different regions. For example, much of the northern part of the original Thule range was completely abandoned; in the central Arctic Inuit shifted from land-based winter occupations to snow house villages on the sea ice; and in parts of Ellesmere Island, Greenland and Labrador house form shifted from small dwellings to very large communal structures. Explanations for these changes fall into three main categories. First, the changes in Inuit lifeways generally coincide with the “Little Ice Age”, a period of lower temperatures, increased sea ice, and changing distributions of major plant and animal species; thus climate change is a likely factor. Second, much of this period coincides with increasingly intense interactions between Inuit and European newcomers. Europeans were a source of material, either traded or scavenged, employment of various kinds, and ideas; and on a darker note Europeans brought epidemic diseases which had a major negative impact on local populations. Third, and of great potential importance, Inuit society itself was not static during this period, and social dynamics within Inuit households and regional groups also determined the direction of culture change.
In sum, Inuit culture history in the eastern Arctic is closely tied to major factors such as climate change, Inuit social structures, and interaction between Inuit and other societies. However, there is currently no agreement on the nature and relative importance of these factors, either as they impact the Thule migration, or the Thule – Modern Inuit Transition. While each of these processes coincided to some degree with climate change, other factors were also at play. Therefore, we are left with two primary challenges: 1) determining the relative importance of these various factors on the observed Inuit culture changes, including the relationships between factors; and 2) understanding the dynamic role of Inuit social structures and mechanisms in shaping the direction of cultural change. As a result, Dynamic Inuit Societies in Arctic History was developed in order to address these questions at various spatial scales (e.g., the house, the site, the region), and chronological scales (seasons, years, generations, centuries), with research focused on four interconnected issues:
1) The timing and nature of the Thule migration. Currently, there is significant controversy over whether the Thule migration started around 1000 AD, or much later between 1200-1300 AD. Further research into the chronology of early Thule occupations, the routes taken by Thule migrants, and the nature of their earliest adaptations in the east will impact our understanding of the factors which attracted Thule to the region.
2) Variability in Thule economic and social organization. Inuit societies interacted with their environments most directly through hunting, fishing and gathering. Although Thule were justifiably famous for their prowess in hunting bowhead whales, there are also regions in which caribou, seals, fish, and other resources were of paramount importance; however this variability remains poorly understood. Thule social organization is also imperfectly understood, as seen in complex patterns of family organization, social ranking, and interaction between regions. Our research will provide a series of case studies illustrating the relationships between economic and social spheres of Thule life.
3) The role of climate change and social interaction in Inuit culture history. Several of our projects have as their primary goal the high resolution understanding of particular key instances of Inuit culture change following the Thule period. In these cases, social, economic, and environmental factors will be drawn into the interpretation of changing patterns of architecture, population distribution, economies, and artifact form. Indicators of interactions with “outsiders”, such as the presence of European trade goods, will be particularly important in these case studies.
4) Reconstruction of paleoenvironments. Several projects will collect paleoenvironmental data, including pollen and diatoms from cored lakes located directly adjacent to archaeological sites, and variable frequencies of bowhead whale bones on dated beach ridge sequences. Among the major challenges to be addressed will be the difficulties in correlating paleoenvironmental sequences with archaeological events.
These goals will be accomplished through six field projects, including researchers and students from institutions and government departments across Canada. Equally important is the direct participation of and collaboration with a broad spectrum of Inuit cultural and community organizations.