ArticlePDF Available

Revisiting an Early Thule Inuit occupation of Skraeling Island, Canadian High Arctic

  • Inuit Heritage Trust

Abstract and Figures

This paper presents the faunal material excavated from an Early Thule Inuit semisubterranean house, house 15, from the Skraeling Island site (SfFk-4). In an effort to understand how the occupants of the house interacted with animals, a fine-grained zooarchaeological analysis is employed. Patterning in taxonomic and bone modification frequencies, skeletal element distributions, and prey demography are discussed. Inuit oral histories, mythology, and ethnographic sources are used to help interpret the results of the analysis and reconstruct the group’s subsistence economy. *
Content may be subject to copyright.
est un consortium interuniversitaire sans but lucratif composé de l'Université de Montréal, l'Université Laval et l'Université du Québec à
Montréal. Il a pour mission la promotion et la valorisation de la recherche.
offre des services d'édition numérique de documents
scientifiques depuis 1998.
Pour communiquer avec les responsables d'Érudit :
Lesley Howse
, vol. 37, n° 1, 2013, p. 103-125.
Pour citer cette note, utiliser l'information suivante :
DOI: 10.7202/1025257ar
Note : les règles d'écriture des références bibliographiques peuvent varier selon les différents domaines du savoir.
Ce document est protégé par la loi sur le droit d'auteur. L'utilisation des services d'Érudit (y compris la reproduction) est assujettie à sa politique
d'utilisation que vous pouvez consulter à l'URI
Document téléchargé le 18 juillet 2014 02:57
"Revisiting an Early Thule Inuit occupation of Skraeling Island, Canadian High Arctic"
ÉTUDES/INUIT/STUDIES, 2013, 37(1): 103-125
Revisiting an Early Thule Inuit occupation of
Skraeling Island, Canadian High Arctic
Lesley Howse*
Résumé: Nouvel examen d’une occupation inuit du Thuléen ancien de l’île Skraeling, dans
l’Extrême Arctique canadien
Cet article présente le matériel faunique provenant dune habitation semi-souterraine datant
du Thuléen ancien, l’habitation 15, située sur l’île Skraeling (SfFk-4). Afin de comprendre
l’interaction entre les occupants de l’habitation et les animaux, une analyse détaillée des données
zooarchéologiques a été produite. La répartition taxonomique, les fréquences des modifications
des os, la répartition des éléments du squelette et la démographie des proies sont discutées.
L’histoire orale inuit ainsi que les sources mythologiques et ethnographiques ont été utilisées
pour contribuer à l’interprétation des résultats de l’analyse et pour reconstruire l’économie de
subsistance du groupe.
Abstract: Revisiting an Early Thule Inuit occupation of Skraeling Island, Canadian High
This paper presents the faunal material excavated from an Early Thule Inuit semi-
subterranean house, house 15, from the Skraeling Island site (SfFk-4). In an effort to understand
how the occupants of the house interacted with animals, a fine-grained zooarchaeological
analysis is employed. Patterning in taxonomic and bone modification frequencies, skeletal
element distributions, and prey demography are discussed. Inuit oral histories, mythology, and
ethnographic sources are used to help interpret the results of the analysis and reconstruct the
group’s subsistence economy.
* Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto, 19 Russell Street, Toronto, Ontario M5S 2S2,
104/L. HOWSE
The Early Thule Inuit1 first migrated into the Eastern Arctic from a homeland
somewhere in northwestern or western Alaska (Gulløv 2004; Mathiassen 1927;
McGhee 1984; Morrison 1999); however, the place of origin is still a matter of debate
(see Mason and Bowers 2009). The Early Thule Inuit occupation of Skraeling Island
(Figure 1) is recognised as one of the earliest Inuit occupations in the Eastern Arctic
and forms part of the Ruin Island phase of the Thule culture (Friesen and Arnold 2008;
Gulløv 1997; McCullough 1989; Morrison 1999; Schledermann and McCullough
1980). A comparative analysis of selected traits by Karen McCullough (1989) strongly
suggests that the Early Thule Inuit society of Skraeling Island originated in western
Alaska. This phase was characterised by material culture very similar to that of Alaskan
Thule sites, including harpoon head types and a house layout where a separate kitchen
was accessed by a tunnel that ran parallel to the main entrance tunnel (Holtved 1944;
Schledermann 1978). Excavations on Skraeling Island have uncovered several traits
reminiscent of Alaskan Thule Inuit traditions, including house styles, harpoon heads,
clay pottery, and various household utensils (Schledermann and McCullough 1980).
There are also similarities between the types of tree species whose wood was used as
raw material (Alix 2009).
For this paper, I investigated the faunal remains from an Early Thule Inuit winter
house structure, house 15, and its associated midden at the Skraeling Island site (SfFk-
4). In an effort to understand how the Early Thule Inuit occupants of this house
interacted with animals, I conducted a fine-grained zooarchaeological analysis. While
also considering taphonomic factors, I examined hunting strategies, consumption
practices, and disposal of animal bones. The zooarchaeological record was interpreted
with reference to the traditional life-ways of Inuit societies, specifically human-animal
interaction as recounted in oral histories, mythology, and ethnographic research.
Ruin Islanders and the Skraeling Island site
Eric Holtved (1944) originally defined the Ruin Island phase after excavating
several Early Thule sites located on the Greenland side of Smith Sound, particularly
those on Ruin Island. Through archaeological investigations between 1978 and 1980,
Schledermann and McCullough uncovered several sites with Ruin Island traits on the
east coast of Ellesmere Island, including several on Skraeling Island (McCullough
1989; Schledermann 1978; Schledermann and McCullough 1980).
Skraeling Island is a small island with many raised gravel-beach ridges. The island
is on the western border of the North Water Polynya (Barber and Massom 2007), just
south of the Flagler Bay polynyas (Schledermann 1980; Stirling 1980), and near several
secondary, less stable, polynya concentrations. The close proximity to these ice-free
waters would have made Skraeling Island an attractive location to Arctic peoples, as
1 The term Thule Inuit refers to prehistoric Inuit who were the ancestors of modern Inuit.
important marine resources were readily accessible year-round. Large populations of
beluga (Delphinapterus leucas), narwhal (Monodon monoceros), bowhead whale
(Balaena mysticetus), and walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) are found during the summer
months (Stirling 1980), and smaller frequencies of these animals can be found in the
North Water Polynya during the winter. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are present year-
round and abundant along the edge of the polynyas throughout the winter (ibid.).
Various seal species can be found in the surrounding waters, including ringed seal
(Pusa hispida) and bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus), which are also year-round
residents. Harp seals (Phoca groenlandica) can be found off the coast during the
summer migration (Rosendahl 1961; Sergeant 1991). Also, harbour seals (Phoca
vitulina), which are year-round residents of Baffin Bay, will on occasion make their
way into the North Water Polynya (Mansfield 1967). Birds are abundant in the region,
different species of ducks and geese nest on the island (Schledermann 1980), and
various jaeger species, gull species, ravens, and loons are common (Godfrey 1966). In
addition, the North Water Polynya is host to the largest number of seabirds known in
the Arctic (Karnovsky and Hunt 2002), and marine fish are plentiful.
Figure 1. The location of Skraeling Island, in the Canadian High Arctic. Map by Mike O’Rourke.
Across Skraeling Island are the remains of settlements belonging to early Palaeo-
Eskimo peoples and Thule Inuit (Schledermann 1990). At the Skraeling Island site, on
the southern extension of the island, a total of 23 Thule Inuit house ruins, numerous
tent rings, kayak and umiak supports, and food caches have been identified
106/L. HOWSE
(Schledermann and McCullough 1980; McCullough 1989). Seventeen of the Thule
winter houses appear in five clusters, with the remaining six staggered across the site.
All of them have been at least partially excavated (McCullough 1989). This text
focuses on the distribution of faunal material from house 15 and its associated midden.
Three radiocarbon dates were obtained from the structure. A sample of Norse wool
produced a radiocarbon date of A.D. 1190±60 calibrated years (sample number
GSC3038); however, a date of A.D. 1300±80 based on willow and A.D. 1370±60
based on heather were also obtained (sample numbers GSC2924 and GSC3059; ibid.:
241). These dates, in addition to several Early Thule Inuit artefacts, which include
fragments of pottery forged in Alaska (Schledermann and McCullough 1980), suggest
that the house was occupied by Early Thule Inuit pioneers sometime during the 13th
House 15 exhibited the most substantial superstructure at the site and incorporated
a larger quantity of whalebone than all other house structures. McCullough (1989: 54)
estimated a minimum of two bowhead whales were used to construct the house. This
house had a single room measuring 3.9 x 3.4 m, whose front portion was flagged with
stones and fragments of whale scapulae and mandibles (Figure 2). A raised sleeping
platform was identified at the rear of the structure where the flagstones end and where a
gravel brim appears along each side of the central floor. Walrus bones were also
incorporated into the structure, notably seven skulls and mandibles embedded in the
north wall (McCullough 1989). A substantial kitchen extension had been built to the
east of the house. The kitchen tunnel was 1.3 m x 75 cm wide and approximately 60 cm
high. The kitchen itself measured 2.9 m x 1.8 m and the rear cooking platform had
three separate hearth units. At the south end of the kitchen, an alcove presumably
functioned as a meat locker (ibid.: 54). House 15 was situated between two additional
winter house structures, houses 14 and 16, which obliterated the east and west walls of
the house, an indication that they were constructed after house 15 had been abandoned.
After abandonment, house 15 appears to have served as a midden for the neighbouring
structures (McCullough 1989). Analysis was performed on all the faunal remains from
house 15, except for those from part of the entrance tunnel. Discussion here will be
limited, however, to the faunal remains from the floor level, from the sleeping platform,
and from below the flagstones. The upper levels were considered fill and not included
for analysis because my concern was how the occupants of house 15 interacted with
animals. In addition, six m2 of a midden were excavated in front of house 15’s entrance
tunnel, and its faunal remains also analysed for the following discussion.
Zooarchaeology at the Skraeling Island site
Zooarchaeological analysis can offer valuable insights into how past peoples
behaved and how they interacted with animals, in particular by informing us about the
role of animals in the diet, in social relations, and in symbolism (Russell 2012). Animal
bones are, however, distributed at archaeological sites in ways that result not only from
past human behaviours but also from taphonomic processes (Lyman 1994, 2008). The
role of these processes is thus considered at each stage of the analysis. In addition,
because site formation processes, including cleaning practices and trampling,
differentially impact the faunal remains in houses and middens, these contexts need to
be considered separately.
Figure 2. Plan of Early Thule Inuit house 15, Skraeling Island, after McCullough (1989: 55).
The animal bone samples from the house and the midden were identified on the
basis of the reference collections at the University of Toronto and the Canadian
Museum of Nature. In addition, illustrations of seal skeletal elements found in Hodgetts
(1999) and the online database VZAP (Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic, see Betts
et al. 2011) were used to complement the physical reference collections. The faunal
remains from all contexts were exceptionally well preserved, with the majority of bone
specimens exhibiting periosteum, cartilage and, in some cases, fur. Mammals were the
most numerous taxa in both contexts, accounting for 94.9% of the identified bones
from the house and 99.6% of the identified bones from the midden (Table 1). Bird
bones were more frequent within the house, comprising 5% of the identified bones,
versus only 0.3% of the identified bones from the midden. Fish were absent from both
features (Figure 3). The mammal and bird remains had significantly different
distributions (X2=13.4, p<0.001), an indication that the processes at work were not
random but rather human behaviour or taphonomic processes.
108/L. HOWSE
Table 1. Taxonomic frequencies for house 15 and midden faunal assemblages.
NISP= number of identified specimens, MNI= minimum number of individuals
* Percentages are by class and based on those specimens assigned to species.
**MNI estimate for dog and dog/wolf is a combined value.
The higher frequency of bird remains within the house was likely due to a
combination of factors. For instance, a relatively lower frequency of bird bones from
the midden may have resulted from scavenging by dogs or foxes, as they would
presumably have had greater access to the midden than to the house area (see Friesen
and Betts 2004; Whitridge 2002). It is also possible that cleaning practices contributed
to a higher frequency of bird bones within the house, as the small size of the bones
would have made them less likely to be removed and re-deposited in the midden
(Lamotta and Schiffer 1999).
Common raven
Bird ind.
Bird total
Arctic hare
Bowhead whale
Arctic fox
Polar bear
Bearded seal
Grey seal
Large seal
Large seal/walrus
Ringed seal
Harbour seal
Harp seal
Small seal
Mammal indeterminate
Large mammal
Large sea mammal
Mammal total
Figure 3. The class frequencies for house 15 and the associated midden, Skraeling Island,
expressed as %NISP (number of identified specimens).
Seal bones dominated the faunal samples, contributing 67.9% of the identified
mammal remains from the house, and 68% of the identified mammal remains from the
midden (Figure 4). Several seal species were identified, and when the species could not
be determined the remains were categorised as either large or small seal. Of the
identified seal species, ringed seals were most frequent. There were also harbour seals,
harp seals, and bearded seals from both features and one grey seal from the house
(Table 1).
The second most frequent resource varied in frequency from the house to the
midden (Figure 4). In the house, dog/wolf remains comprised 16.7% of the sample, yet
contributed only 2% of the identified mammal remains from the midden. In the midden,
walrus remains were the second most frequent resource, comprising 16.4% of identified
mammal remains. There was a significantly lower frequency of walrus remains in the
house, where they formed 4.8% of the identified mammal remains. Additional species,
such as polar bear, bowhead, narwhal, muskox, caribou, arctic fox, and arctic hare,
were identified in both features but comprised no more than 4% of the identified
mammal species. Of the identified bird remains, the common raven was the most
frequent species in the house, forming 95.7%, with eider and goose each contributing
2.1% (Table 1). In the midden, the single bird specimen was a goose.
110/L. HOWSE
Figure 4. The distribution of mammals expressed as %NISP (number of identified specimens).
Animal element distribution
By measuring the presence and distribution of animal skeletal elements, we can
infer how an animal was killed and transported, and how it was butchered, consumed,
and disposed (Binford 1978). Quite often, the distribution of animal elements is
impacted by density-mediated attrition, as elements that have high meat utility tend to
have low bone density and are thus more vulnerable to taphonomic processes (Lyman
1984, 1992). To determine whether bone density played a role in the representation of
bones from small seals, the minimum number of animal units (MAU) was compared
with bone density (Figure 5, Table 2). Bone density did not correlate with small seal
MAU from the house (rs=0.14, p=0.54) or from the midden (rs=-0.11, p=0.64) and thus
was probably not a factor in the distribution of bones from small seals within each
feature. The impacts of chemical and mechanical processes would have been nominal,
as these processes would have had greater impact on elements of low density. This
finding increases the likelihood that humans or carnivores had removed elements high
in density.
The distribution of bones from small seals was also compared with the food utility
index (FUI) of small seals (Table 3). The FUI of small seals did not correlate with
%MAU from the house (rs=0.14, p=0.62) or from the midden (rs=0.19, p=0.5). Thus,
food utility played no role in the distribution of bones from small seals in the house or
in the midden. A preference-ranking index was also applied (Table 3). This qualitative
measure has been used to assess the role of sensory characteristics, including taste,
smell, and texture, in the meat preferences of Iñupiat, from Barrow, Alaska (Diab
1998). The preference-ranking index did not significantly correlate with small seal
Figure 5. Small seal element distribution based on %MAU (minimum number of animal units).
Table 2. The values of bone mineral density for small seals after Lyman (1994) and MAU
(minimal animal units) of small seals from the house and the midden.
Small seal element
Bone density
House MAU
Midden MAU
humerus, prox.
humerus, dist.
radius, prox.
radius, dist.
ulna, prox.
ulna, dist.
femur, prox.
femur, dist.
tibia, prox.
tibia, dist.
112/L. HOWSE
distribution within the house (rs=0.24, p=0.47); however, there was a strong positive
correlation between the preference-ranking index and small seal MAU from the midden
(rs=0.73, p=0.01). This finding is difficult to explain, particularly why preferred
elements, including tibiae/fibulae and femora, were found in high frequencies in the
midden and not in the house (Table 3). A combination of factors was likely responsible,
including element preference, butchery of the animal and, possibly, food-sharing
Table 3. The small seal FUI (food utility index) (Lyman 1992), Iñupiat preference ranking (Diab
1998), and %MAU (minimum number of animal units) of small seals from both the house and
the midden.
Small seal element
9 **
no data
no data
front flipper
no data
hind flipper
no data
*Inverse values are used for statistical correlation.
** Preference for cervical vertebrae
The distribution of skeletal elements was also examined for the second most
frequent resource within both features, as well as for bird remains. A high frequency of
dog/wolf elements was found in the house. Except for the skull and the humeri, all parts
of the dog/wolf skeleton were identified, the axis vertebrae being the most abundant
parts. The entire skeleton was less represented in dog/wolf remains from the midden,
there being one complete caudal vertebra, fragments of the hipbone and the tibia, and a
thoracic vertebra. Various portions of the walrus skeleton were identified, skulls being
well represented in both contexts, crania most abundant in the house, and mandibles
most abundant in the midden. As well, among those elements from the house whose
side could be determined, all were from the left side of the skeleton. The majority of
the common raven specimens were articulated and complete with the exception of
missing vertebrae and foot phalanges. Waterfowl specimens were limited to leg and
wing elements.
Modification frequencies
All modifications to the bone specimens, including cut marks, burning, gnaw
marks, and fragmentation, were recorded during the faunal identification (Table 4).
This was done in order to better understand how various taphonomic factors impacted
the faunal distribution at the site. Cut marks were found on 9.4% of the bones from the
house, and 2.4% of the bones in the midden. Each mammal species displayed cut marks
indicative of different activities, including: disarticulation, when cut marks were found
near joints; skinning, when cut marks encircled the shafts of lower limb bones or were
found at the base of antlers, ears, mouth and chin; and meat removal, when cut marks
were found at the mid-diaphysis (Binford 1981). Bones from the house had a higher
frequency of cut marks, perhaps as a result of meat removal and consumption practices.
Bones from the midden likely had a lower frequency because they were removed
during the initial butchery of the animal (see Friesen and Betts 2004).
Gnaw marks were also more frequent on bones found within the house, where they
appear on 11.4% of the mammal bones (Table 4). In the midden, gnaw marks appeared
only on 3.8% of the mammal bones. This distribution was unexpected, as dogs likely
would have had greater access to the midden than to the house. It seems that midden
deposits accumulate quickly during the winter and frequently become encased in
permafrost soon after deposal; the upper levels also often serve to protect lower levels
from scavenger activity. Both factors may explain the low frequency of gnaw marks on
the bone specimens from the midden. In addition, gnawing may have occurred once the
house had been abandoned and had thus become accessible to entry by dogs.
Burnt bones were infrequent at the site, representing 0.3% of the mammal bones
within the structure and being absent from the midden. The low frequency of burnt
bones may indicate that boiling was a favoured cooking practice (see Friesen and Betts
2004), or perhaps they were removed from the structure and deposited elsewhere. Bone
fragmentation was calculated using the NISP:MNE ratios of mammal bones (Lyman
1994). Fragmentation rates were low in both features: 1.1 in the house and 1.4 in the
midden. Apart from the gnawing, it seems that the bone specimens in both features
were not greatly impacted by trampling and that bone specimens were not heavily
processed after initial disarticulation and skin and meat removal.
Table 4. Frequencies of modifications to mammal remains.
Cut marks
(87) 9.4%
(7) 2.4%
Gnaw marks
(106) 11.4%
(11) 3.8%
(3) 1.1%
Fragmentation (NISP:MNE)
NISP= number of identified specimens, MNE= minimum number of elements
114/L. HOWSE
Seasonal indicators and prey demography
The faunal list provides some indication of the season(s) during which the animal
specimens from the house had been killed and when the house may have been
inhabited. Warm season migrants were present, including eider, goose, and harp seal,
but in low frequencies (Table 1). Most faunal specimens from the house and the
midden were yearlong residents, including ringed and bearded seal, walrus, beluga,
narwhal, bowhead, and polar bear.
In small seals, the fusion of skeletal elements was analysed in order to estimate the
distribution of ages at death. Using this method, specimens were categorised into four
skeletal age groups: yearlings, i.e. killed in the first year of life; juveniles, i.e. killed
between one and four years of age; young adults, i.e. killed between four and seven;
and old adults, i.e. at least 7.5 years old when killed (Storå 2002). In modern small seal
populations, the fusion of various skeletal elements occurs in a predictable sequence
(ibid.). For this analysis, the samples from both the house and the midden were
combined because both samples presumably came from the same group (Table 5). The
data indicate that at least one seal had been killed before it could reach the age of six
months, its death being thus sometime between April and September. Juveniles, young
seals, and old adults were also identified (Table 5). Though insufficient, the data may
point to seasonably variable hunting (see Gotfredsen 2010). For instance, yearlings tend
to occupy areas of land-fast ice until they are weaned, as do older adults (Smith 1973,
1987); thus, these animals could have been harvested during the spring or early summer
when the land-fast ice was still present. However, juveniles and young adults prefer the
ice edge along open waters (ibid.) and were likely taken at the ice edge along either the
Flalger Bay or North Water polynyas sometime during the winter or spring.
In addition to indicating the type of species and the age distribution of small seals,
the robust architecture of house 15 is consistent with cold weather occupation.
Although the houses might have also been used during warm weather (see Nagy 1994),
it is more likely that several tent rings found on Skraeling Island were occupied during
the summer months. In this case, it seems likely that the harp seal and the yearling were
caught during the summer but stored until the winter when they were consumed (see
Lantis 1984). This seasonal occupation would also account for the low frequency of
bird remains at the site.
Table 5. Unfused seal element frequencies expressed as MNE (minimum number of elements).
Seal element
House 15 Total
Age fusion sequence
Y: metatarsal 1, dist.
Y: pelvis, acetabulum
Y: scapula, supraglenoid tubercle
% unfused
J: femur, prox.
J: radius, prox.
J: humerus, dist.
% unfused
YA: femur, dist.
YA: humerus, prox.
YA: ulna, prox.
YA: tibia/fibula, prox.
% unfused
OA: ulna, dist.
OA: metatarsal 1, prox.
OA: radius, dist.
OA: tibia/fibula, dist.
% unfused
Y=yearling, J=juvenile, YA=young adult, OA=old adult
Inuit and animal interaction at the Skraeling Island site
House 15 and its associated midden yielded a distribution and frequency of animal
species that is generally consistent with other coastal Early Thule sites in the Eastern
Arctic, where faunal assemblages are predominantly bones from small seals (Darwent
and Foin 2010; Mathiassen 1927; McCullough 1989; Park 1989; Sabo 1981; Taylor
1972; Whitridge 1992). As discussed in the previous section, the age distribution of
small seals within the house and the midden suggests that seals were hunted on the
land-fast ice and along the polynyas. Evidence of open water hunting is also consistent
with the identified presence of migratory harp seals, as these animals tend to stay
offshore near pack ice (Sergeant 1991). In addition, open water hunting would have
targeted whales and, potentially, walrus during the summer months.
116/L. HOWSE
The prevalence of bowhead whale bones at Early Thule sites, including the
Skraeling Island site, suggests that bowhead whale hunting was likely very important to
these groups and key to the scheduling of seasonal activities (McCartney 1980). It is
difficult, however, to estimate how many were harvested and the degree to which they
were relied upon for food, since whale bones were often conserved as building
materials (Park 1989). A recently developed model involves recounting of bones at
archaeological sites to evaluate Early Thule Inuit bowhead use (Savelle 2010). Thus
far, this avenue of research has indicated that Early Thule Inuit whale harvesting may
have actually been higher in some regions than once thought. If we also take into
account the large amount of meat and blubber on a single bowhead, it seems that this
whale species was likely the focal point of local subsistence and hunting activities
wherever it was readily available. Thus, the faunal assemblages recovered from many
Early Thule Inuit sites are composed primarily of secondary prey species (see Staab
1979). Hunting of these other species would have nonetheless been an integral part of
Early Thule Inuit society, even where whale hunting was also likely important, and
especially in years when whales were not captured or when stored meat spoiled. Such
was probably the case at Skraeling Island, as suggested by the prevalence of seal bones
within house 15 and its associated midden deposit.
An unusual find at the site was the remains of a grey seal, as this species typically
occupies more temperate waters (Rice 1998). Today, its geographic range includes the
area surrounding Sable Island, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the northeast Atlantic off
Iceland, Norway, and Ireland and the Baltic and White seas (Hall 2002). Though rare,
their presence in Greenland was reported by the 18th-century Danish missionary and
zoologist Otto Fabricius, who described the seal in his Detailed Description of the
Seals of Greenland on the basis of an Inuit name for this species (Kapel 2005). This
said, he never encountered one himself, nor had he met a hunter who had. In addition,
the 19th-century Scottish explorer Robert Brown (1868) claimed to have collected a
grey seal skull found near Disko Island, yet the seal skull was destroyed and its species
identity could not be confirmed. The first confirmed sighting of a grey seal in
Greenland occurred in 2009 when a lone grey seal was spotted near the coast of
Southeast Greenland (Rosing-Asvid et al. 2010). The grey seal bones at the Skraeling
Island site suggest that this species may have periodically made trips further north than
previously noted. As the house was occupied during the Medieval Warm Period, the
northern waters along the east coast of Ellesmere Island would have remained ice-free
longer. Thus, the productivity of the Flalger Bay and North Water polynya would have
made the area an attractive respite for a wandering grey seal.
While the skeletal parts of small seals varied between the house and the midden,
vertebrae were consistently underrepresented. This pattern may have resulted from dog
feeding practices (see Diab 1998), as seal meat is commonly used to sustain dog teams,
particularly during the winter when they are regularly used for transportation (Nelson
1969; Smith 1991). The high frequency of hind flippers within the house may be
related not to subsistence activities but to entertainment. For instance, Inuit traditionally
used seal phalanges in a game called inugah, which was typically played during the
long winter months (Culin 1907). Although the Early Thule Inuit occupants of this
house may have played something similar, this game was not restricted to the bones of
the hind flipper. Alternatively, the high frequency of hind flippers may be related to
food preference and food-sharing practices. Preference for hind flipper seal meat is well
known among the Inuit (Freuchen 1935: 227), as is sharing of hind flippers among
Central Arctic Inuit (Damas 1972; Van de Velde 1976). As noted by McCullough
(1988), the lower frequencies of fore flipper bones could, in part, be explained by the
retention of these elements on sealskin floats (Holtved 1967: 87; Kroeber 1899).
Dog remains were quite frequent within house 15 and represented at least five
animals (Table 1). This high frequency has several possible explanations. In Inuit
society, dogs pulled sleds, this being the main mode of transportation during the winter.
They were used also while hunting to find the breathing holes of seals and to corral
large animals such as polar bears. During the summer months, they were sometimes
pack animals. Finally, they could become a source of food when supplies ran low, as
suggested by oral traditions and ethnographic research from all Arctic regions (e.g.,
Rasmussen and Koch 1921). The presence of cut marks on dog vertebrae and joints
suggests that these dogs had been disarticulated and eaten. However, the large portion
of periosteum attached to the bone specimens from both the house and the midden
implies that at least some dogs were not consumed out of starvation. These dogs may
also have been killed for their fur. In the Western Arctic, dog fur has traditionally been
incorporated into clothing and bedding. John Murdoch (1892: 110) recounts that winter
mittens were often made out of dog skin amongst the Inuit of Northwest Alaska.
Edward Nelson (1899: 31) also states that dog skin was used to make men’s trousers.
Of the cut marks on dog remains from the house and the midden, several encircled the
lower limbs, a sign that these animals had been skinned. In addition, fur-bearing
animals comprised a very small proportion of identified species, this being indirect
support for the idea that dog fur was used for clothing. It remains unclear whether these
dogs died of natural causes or were specifically killed for their meat or fur.
As mentioned earlier, walrus skulls were incorporated throughout the house
structure. Most noteworthy are the seven walrus skulls and mandibles built into the
north wall (McCullough 1989). In many hunter-gatherer societies, the skull is often
thought to be where the soul resides. Among northern Alaskan Inuit, according to
Robert Spencer (1959: 164), walrus heads were given to the owner of the hunting boat,
the umialik (pl. umialiit). By incorporating walrus skulls into the north wall of house
15, the occupants might have been displaying their community status. However, there
was likely more cooperation and less status differentiation among pioneering Thule
Inuit families, like those who occupied the Skraeling Island site, in order to ensure
survival of the group (see Morrison 1999). Walrus skulls were included in the house
structure of a contact-era house in Wales, northwestern Alaska (Harritt 2010). In this
house, however, the skulls were on the exterior walls and visible to all. In addition,
Barrow Inuit believed that once a sea mammal had been killed, it could return and
assume a monstrous shape if its carcass was treated improperly (Spencer 1959: 263).
As a result, the common practice was to remove the animal’s head so that the spirit
could escape, thus preventing any act of vengeance. It may be, then, that the treatment
of these skulls could have been a means of appeasing the animal spirits.
118/L. HOWSE
Forty-five walrus specimens were identified from the floor of the house in addition
to the walrus skulls in the house walls. Of these, 20 specimens were ribs or from the
appendicular skeleton. Of the 18 whose side could be determined, all were from the left
side. These remains were not limited to one part of the skeleton but included parts of
the front and hind limbs. Seemingly, this pattern is not the result of poor bone
preservation or dog activity, and there is no known ethnographic analogy that explains
this skeletal element distribution. While meat sharing was likely practised by Early
Thule Inuit groups in a similar manner to that of ethnographically known groups (see
Damas 1972), these practices tended to involve the sharing of particular body parts, not
the entire side of an animal. For now, this pattern is unique to house 15 and may be
specific to a single site rather than being an established practice.
The low frequency of bird bones suggests that birds contributed little to the diet of
the occupants of house 15, who appear to have heavily relied upon stored meat. The
house did yield, however, at least four common raven (Table 1). The raven bones were
not heavily processed, most of them being articulated and found whole. If dogs or foxes
had caught these birds, the bones would have likely been more fragmentary. While
these birds may have died of natural causes in the house, it is possible that they were
conserved for more symbolic reasons. Across the Arctic, ravens figure predominately
in Inuit mythology (Boas 1901; Nelson 1899; Rasmussen and Worster 1921), and a
number of ethnohistoric sources refer to ravens as being used as amulets. At Point
Barrow, Murdoch (1892: 275) states that the whaling umialiit used dried ravens to
ensure the success of a hunt. Søby (1968-70: 49) notes that raven skins were hung
down the back of the umialiit. At Kotzebue Sound, Frederick Beechey (1831: 458)
describes the Inuit he encountered as having “had some skins of ravens with them,
upon which they placed a high price” and that “on several occasions we had noticed the
beaks and claws of these birds attached to ornamental bands for the head and waist, and
they were evidently considered valuable.” Thus, it seems that these birds were not
consumed as food but may instead have had a symbolic significance and figured
importantly in hunting practices.
The faunal remains from the Skraeling Island site suggest that the Early Thule
Inuit of Skraeling Island focused their hunting efforts on a few key resources, as did
Thule Inuit across the Arctic and later Inuit societies. By examining how animal bones
were distributed within house 15 and its associated midden, it is possible to reconstruct
not only the subsistence economy but also everyday rituals or taboos that were similar
to those practised by more recent Inuit groups. The raven’s possible symbolic function,
the display of walrus skulls in the house structure, and even the use of dog fur express
the more social aspects of human-animal interaction at the Skraeling Island site,
thereby exemplifying Inuit cultural traditions that would continue throughout the
prehistory and history of Alaska and the Eastern Arctic.
I owe many thanks to Karen McCullough who supported my examination of
several faunal samples from the Skraeling Island site, including the material discussed
here. I am also grateful to the Canadian Museum of Civilization, where the material is
stored, for granting me access to the faunal samples. An earlier draft of this paper was
presented in an Arctic session at the 110th Annual Meeting of the American
Anthropological Association in Montreal. I want to thank Sean Desjardin, Sarah
Hazell, and Marie-Pierre Gadoua for inviting me to participate in that session as well as
the presenters and discussants who again awakened my love for the Arctic. I owe many
thanks to Michael O’Rourke who prepared Figure 1. I am very grateful to several
people who provided me with helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.
ALIX, Claire
2009 Driftwood, Timber and Shrubs! Wood Used by Ruin Islander Thule at
Skraeling Island, Eastern Ellesmere Island, Canada, in B. Grønnow (ed.),
On the Track of the Thule Culture from Bering Strait to East Greenland:
Proceedings of the SILA Conference The Thule Culture-New Perspectives
in Inuit Prehistory, Copenhagen, Oct. 26th-28th, 2006. Papers in Honour
of Hans Christian Gulløv, Copenhagen, National Museum of Denmark,
Publications from the National Museum, Studies in Archaeology and
History, 15: 149-165.
BARBER, David G., and Robert A. MASSOM
2007 Chapter 1. The Role of Sea Ice in Arctic and Antarctic Polynyas, in W.O.
Smith and D.G. Barber (eds), Polynyas: Windows to the World, Amsterdam,
Elsevier Oceanography Series, 74: 1-54.
BEECHEY, Frederick William
1831 Narrative of a voyage to the Pacific and Beering's Strait, to co-operate with
the polar expeditions: Performed in His Majesty's ship Blossom, under the
command of Captain F.W. Beechey, R.N., F.R.S. &c. in the years 1825, 26,
27, 28, volume 1, London, Authority of the Lords Commissioners of the
BETTS, Matthew, Herbert MASCHNER, Corey SCHOU, Robert SCHLADER,
Jonathan HOLMES, Nicholas CLEMENT and Michael SMUIN
2011 Virtual zooarchaeology: Building a web-based reference collection of
northern vertebrates for archaeofaunal research and education, Journal of
Archaeological Science 38(4): 755-762.
120/L. HOWSE
BROWN, Robert
1868 On the mammalian fauna of Greenland, Proceedings of the Zoological
Society of London, 1868: 330-362.
1978 Nunamiut ethnoarchaeology, New York, Academic Press.
1981 Bones: Ancient Men and Modern Myths, New York, Academic Press.
CULIN, Stewart
1907 Games of the North American Indians, Washington, Smithsonian Institution,
Annual Report for the Bureau of American Ethnology, 24.
DAMAS, David
1972 Central Eskimo Systems of Food Sharing, Ethnology, 11(3): 220-240.
DARWENT, Christyann and Jeremy FOIN
2010 Zooarchaeological Analysis of a Late Dorset and an Early Thule Dwelling
at Cape Grinnell, Northwest Greenland, Geografisk Tidsskrift-Danish
Journal of Geography, 11(2): 315-336.
DIAB, Mark C.
1998 Economic Utility of the Ringed Seal (Phoca hispida): Implications for
Arctic Archaeology, Journal of Archaeological Science, 25(1): 1-26.
1935 Field Notes and Biological Observations, in Magnus Degerbol and Peter
Freuchen, Zoology 1: Mammals, Copenhagen, Gyldendalske Boghandel,
Nordisk Forlag, Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-24, 2(4-5): 68-
FRIESEN, T. Max and Charles D. ARNOLD
2008 The Timing of the Thule Migration: New Dates from the Western Canadian
Arctic. American Antiquity, 73(3): 527-538.
FRIESEN, T. Max and Matthew BETTS
2004 Archaeofaunas and Architecture: Zooarchaeological Variability in an Inuit
Semi-Subterranean House, Arctic Canada, in M. Maltby (ed.), Proceedings
of the 9th Conference of the International Council of Archaeozoology,
Durham. Integrating zooarchaeology, Oxford, Oxbow Books: 65-76.
1966 The Birds of Canada, Ottawa, National Museum of Canada.
GOTFREDSEN, Anne Birgitte
2010 Faunal Remains from the Wollaston Forland Clavering Ø Region,
Northeast Greenland Thule Culture Subsistence in a High Arctic Polynya
and Ice-edge Habitat, Geografisk tidsskrift Journal of Geography, 110(2):
GULLØV, Hans Christian
1997 From Middle Ages to Colonial Times: Archaeological and Ethnohistorical
Studies of the Thule Culture in South West Greenland 1300-1800 A.D.,
Copenhagen, Commission for Scientific Research in Greenland,
Meddelelser om Grønland, Man and Society, 23.
2004 Grønlands Forhistorie, København, Gyldendal.
2010 Variations of Late Prehistoric Houses in Coastal Northwest Alaska: A View
from Wales, Arctic Anthropology, 47(1): 57-70.
1999 Appendix B: A Manual for the Identification of the Post-Cranial Skeleton of
North Atlantic Phocid Seals, in L.M. Hodgetts, Animal Bones and Human
Society in the Late Younger Stone Age of Arctic Norway, volume 2, Ph.D.
dissertation, University of Durham, Durham: 296-367.
1944 Archaeological investigations in the Thule district, volume I, Descriptive
part, Copenhagen, C.A. Reitzel, Meddelelser om Grønland, 141(1).
1967 Contributions to Polar Eskimo Ethnography, Copenhagen, Meddelelser om
Grønland, 182(2).
KAPEL, Finn O.
2005 Otto Fabricius and the seals of Greenland, Copenhagen, Meddelelser om
Grønland, Bioscience, 55.
KARNOVSKY, Nina J., and George L. HUNT, Jr.
2002 Estimation of carbon flux to dovekies (Alle alle) in the North Water, Deep
Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography, 49(22-23): 5117-
KROEBER, Alfred Louis
1899 The Eskimo of Smith Sound, American Museum of Natural History
Bulletin, 2: 265-327.
122/L. HOWSE
LAMOTTA, Vincent and Michael SCHIFFER
1999 Formation Processes of House Floor Assemblages, in P.M. Allison, The
Archaeology of Household Activities, London, Routledge: 19-29.
LANTIS, Margaret
1984 Nunivak Eskimo, in D. Damas (ed.), Handbook of North American Indians,
volume 5, Arctic, Washington, Smithsonian Institution: 209-223.
1984 Bone Frequencies: Differential Transport, In Situ Destruction, and the
MGUI, Journal of Archaeological Science, 12(3): 221-236.
1992 Anatomical Considerations of Utility Curves in Zooarchaeology, Journal of
Archaeological Science, 19(1): 7-22.
1994 Vertebrate taphonomy, Cambridge manuals in archaeology, Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press.
2008 Quantitative Paleozoology, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
1967 Distribution of the Harbor Seal, Phoca vitulina Linnaeus, in Canadian Arctic
Waters. Journal of Mammalogy, 48(2): 249-257.
MASON, Owen and Peter BOWERS
2009 The Origin of Thule is Always Elsewhere: Early Thule within Kotzebue
Sound, Cul-de-sac or Nursery?, in B. Grønnow (ed.), On the Track of the
Thule Culture from Bering Strait to East Greenland: Proceedings of the
SILA Conference The Thule Culture-New Perspectives in Inuit Prehistory,
Copenhagen, Oct. 26th-28th, 2006. Papers in Honour of Hans Christian
Gulløv, Copenhagen, National Museum of Denmark, Publications from the
National Museum, Studies in Archaeology and History, 15: 22-44.
1927 Archaeology of the Central Eskimos, Copenhagen, Gyldendalske
Boghandel, Nordisk Forlag, Report of the Fifth-Thule Expedition,1921-
1924, 4(1-2).
1980 The Nature of Thule Eskimo Whale Use, Arctic, 33(3): 517-541.
1988 Neo-Eskimo Diet and Hunting Strategies on Eastern Ellesmere Island,
Northwest Territories, Canada, in Brenda V. Kennedy and Genevieve M.
Lemoine (eds), Diet and Subsistence: Current Archaeological Perspectives,
Proceedings of the Nineteenth Annual Conference of the Archaeological
Association of the University of Calgary, Calgary, University of Calgary,
Archaeological Association of the University of Calgary: 190-206.
1989 The Ruin Islanders. Early Thule Culture Pioneers in the Eastern High
Arctic, Hull, Canadian Museum of Civilisation, Mercury Series,
Archaeological Survey of Canada, 141.
McGHEE, Robert
1984 Thule Prehistory of Canada, in D. Damas (ed.), Handbook of North
American Indians, Volume 5, Arctic, Washington, Smithsonian Institution:
1999 The Earliest Thule Migration, Canadian Journal of Archaeology, 22(2):
1892 Ethnological Results of the Pont Barrow Expedition, Washington,
Smithsonian Institution, Annual Report of the Bureau of American
Ethnology, 9.
NAGY, Murielle
1994 Interpretation in Arctic Archaeology: Lessons from Inuvialuit Oral History,
in Jean-Luc Pilon (ed.), Bridges Across Time: The NOGAP Archaeology
Project, Canadian Archaeological Association, Occasional Paper, 2: 29-38.
PARK, Robert W.
1989 Porden Point: An Intrasite Approach to Settlement System Analysis, Ph.D.
disseration, University of Alberta, Edmonton.
RICE, Dale W.
1998 Marine mammals of the world: Systematics and distribution, Lawrence,
Society for Marine Mammalogy, Special publication, 4.
1961 Gronlandsk jagt-og fangststatistikk, Geografisk Tidsskrift-Danish Journal of
Geography, 60: 16-38.
ROSING-ASVID, Aqqalu, Jonas TEILMANN, Rune DIETZ and Morten Tange
2010 First Confirmed Record of Grey Seals in Greenland, Arctic, 63(4): 471-473.
RUSSELL, Nerissa
2012 Social Zooarchaeology: Humans and Animals in Prehistory, Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press.
124/L. HOWSE
SABO, George
1981 Thule Culture Adaptations on the South Coast of Baffin Island, N.W.T.,
Ph.D. dissertation, Michigan State University, Michigan.
2010 Cumulative Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus) Harvest Estimates by
Prehistoric Thule Inuit in the Canadian Arctic 1200-1500 A.D.: Implications
for Bowhead Whale Population Modeling and Thule Demography, Bulletin
of the National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku), 34(3): 593-618.
1978 Preliminary results of archaeological investigations in the Bache Peninsula
region, Ellesmere Island, N.W.T., Arctic, 31(4): 459-474.
1980 Polynyas and Prehistoric Settlement Patterns, Arctic, 33(2): 292-302.
1990 Crossroads to Greenland, Calgary, The Arctic Institute of North America.
1980 Western Elements in the Early Thule Culture of the Eastern High Arctic,
Arctic, 33(4): 833-842.
1991 Harp Seals, Man and Ice, Ottawa, Department of Fisheries and Oceans,
Canadian Special Publication of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 114.
SMITH, Eric Alden
1991 Inujjuamiut Foraging Strategies: Evolutionary Ecology of an Arctic
Hunting Economy. Aldine de Gruyter, New York.
SMITH, Thomas G.
1973 Population dynamics of the ringed seal in the Canadian Eastern Arctic,
Ottawa, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Fisheries Research Board of
Canada, Bulletin 181.
1987 The ringed seal, Phoca hispida, of the Canadian Western Arctic, Ottawa,
Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canadian Bulletin of Fisheries and
Aquatic Sciences, 216.
BY, Regitze Margrethe
1969-70 The Eskimo Animal Cult, Folk, 11-12: 43-78.
STAAB, Margie L.
1979 Analysis of Faunal Material Recovered from a Thule Eskimo Site on the
Island of Silumiut, N.W.T., Canada, in A.P. McCartney (ed.), Thule Eskimo
Culture: An Anthropological Retrospective, Ottawa, National Museum of
Man, Mercury Series, Archaeological Survey of Canada, 88: 349-379.
1980 The Biological Importance of Polynyas in the Canadian Arctic, Arctic,
33(2): 303-315.
2002 Neolithic Seal Exploitation on the Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea on the
Basis of Epiphyseal Fusion Data and Metric Studies, International Journal
of Osteoarchaeology, 12(1): 49-64.
TAYLOR, William E., Jr.
1972 An Archaeological Survey Between Cape Parry and Cambridge Bay,
N.W.T., Canada in 1963, Ottawa, National Museum of Man, Mercury
Series, Archaeological Survey of Canada, Paper 1.
Van de VELDE, Franz
1976 Seal sharing partnerships among the Pelly Bay Inuit, in M. M. R. Freeman
(ed.), Inuit Land Use and Occupancy Project, volume 2, Supporting studies,
Ottawa, Department of Indian and Northern Affairs: 187-191.
1992 Thule Subsistence and Optimal Diet: A Zooarchaeological Test of Linear
Programming Model, Master's thesis, McGill University, Montreal.
2001 Zen Fish: A Consideration of the Discordance between Artifactual and
Zooarchaeological Indicators of Thule Inuit Fish Use, Journal of
Anthropological Archaeology, 20(1): 3-72.
... Late Dorset relied more heavily on a variety of spring/summer migrants (Table 4; Howse 2016). In the Thule Inuit archaeofaunas, although migratory bird species were present, they were much less common (Table 4; Howse 2013Howse , 2016. A few harp seal bones were found in both samples. ...
... In the Smith Sound region, where caribou is infrequent and there are dramatic fluctuations in caribou populations (Roby and Thing 1985), Late Dorset took higher frequencies of muskox and arctic hare, in addition to arctic fox (Table 3; see also Darwent 2001), which would have been important alternative sources of fur. At the Thule Inuit Smith Sound site, the most frequent fur bearer in the faunal sample is dog/ wolf, perhaps suggesting in this region Thule Inuit acquired fur when needed from the dogs they had on hand (Howse 2013). Interestingly, Late Dorset also took higher frequencies of high-ranking resources that are not abundant in each region, including seals at Iqaluktuuq and caribou at the Grinnell Peninsula and Smith Sound sites. ...
Full-text available
This paper investigates human-animal interaction in two very different hunter-gatherer societies, Late Dorset and Thule Inuit, who once occupied the eastern Arctic (Canadian Arctic and Greenland). I focus on their disparate hunting technologies in order to achieve a nuanced understanding of how cultural factors influenced this relationship and to ultimately better understand why Late Dorset disappeared from the archaeological record. I assess how hunting technologies impacted each society's archaeofaunas and describe what appear to be culturally distinct trends in the faunal remains. In light of these findings, differences between Late Dorset and Thule Inuit hunting strategies, and other societal aspects including labour organization, hierarchy, and food provisioning is considered. This research discusses how generalized versus specialized hunting technologies impacted the social trajectory of each society, and methodologically, it provides a case study for how the use of specialized technologies can be viewed in the archaeological record.
... Late Dorset relied more heavily on a variety of spring/summer migrants (Table 4; Howse 2016). In the Thule Inuit archaeofaunas, although migratory bird species were present, they were much less common (Table 4; Howse 2013Howse , 2016. A few harp seal bones were found in both samples. ...
... In the Smith Sound region, where caribou is infrequent and there are dramatic fluctuations in caribou populations (Roby and Thing 1985), Late Dorset took higher frequencies of muskox and arctic hare, in addition to arctic fox (Table 3; see also Darwent 2001), which would have been important alternative sources of fur. At the Thule Inuit Smith Sound site, the most frequent fur bearer in the faunal sample is dog/ wolf, perhaps suggesting in this region Thule Inuit acquired fur when needed from the dogs they had on hand (Howse 2013). Interestingly, Late Dorset also took higher frequencies of high-ranking resources that are not abundant in each region, including seals at Iqaluktuuq and caribou at the Grinnell Peninsula and Smith Sound sites. ...
Conference Paper
This paper investigates human and animal interaction in two very different hunter-gatherer societies, Late Dorset and Thule Inuit, who once occupied the eastern Arctic. To access cultural differences I focus on how disparate hunting technologies impacted each society’s archaeofaunas, and describe what appear to be culturally distinct trends in the faunal remains. In light of these findings, differences between Late Dorset and Thule Inuit hunting strategies, and other societal aspects including labor organization, hierarchy, and prestige are considered. How generalized versus specialized hunting technologies impacted the trajectory of each society is also discussed.
... Villagran et al., 2011). Others have worked to better differentiate feasting from cleaning rubbish deposited in different contexts (Howse, 2013;Maxwell, 2003). Thus, more spatial and statistical comparisons of faunal records by context can lead to more diverse interpretations of feasting practice. ...
Contextual taphonomy is an archaeological approach that integrates taphonomic variables with stratigraphy and context, often at the intra-site level. A majority of zooarchaeological research explores vertebrate taphonomy broadly by entire temporal levels of sites, thus aggregating multiple contexts by time period. Yet, an increasing number of high-resolution studies go beyond this level to explore taphonomy per context or by other meaningful intra-site divisions. This approach marshals the rich information offered by the well-established discipline of taphonomy to build depositional histories of site features that contain bones, thereby revealing their formation and use. Here, we aim to better formalize the definition of contextual taphonomy for zooarchaeology and demonstrate its great applicability through select case studies in Israel. In this summary of the approach for the Special Issue on “Contextual Taphonomy in Zooarchaeological Practice”, we lay out the main requirements for multi-scalar contextual analysis and caution against potential pitfalls. Ultimately, archaeofaunal taphonomic studies at the context level are pertinent for myriad research questions, including those of refuse maintenance, camp organization and feasting.
... In particular, such information has been critical to the understanding of late prehistoric hunter/gatherer plant and animal use (e.g . Hartery 2006;Howse 2013;Lepofsky et al. 1996;Zutter 2009). A notable exception is the island of Newfoundland where the extinction of the Beothuk has left a gap in the ethnohistoric and ethnographic records that has had a profound effect on the interpretation in Beothuk archaeology (Holly 2003;Kristensen and Davis 2015). ...
The direct historical approach, which draws cultural links between the historic and prehistoric past at specific locations, has a longstanding, and at times controversial, history in archaeological interpretation. Evidence from this and related approaches, such as ethnohistorical reconstruction, historical linguistics, oral tradition, and native folklore, is widely employed today by North American archaeologists. It is also a commonly held idea that ethnoarchaeological models are most valuable when they can be linked through historical documentation to past cultures in the same region. The direct historical approach, where applicable, can provide a reliable form of analogical reasoning in ethnoarchaeological studies. However, the historical record is not equal in each region, and researchers must take into account the level of cultural change due to European contact. This paper uses selected examples from northern North America to revisit the role of the direct historical approach in ethnoarchaeological research.
Full-text available
This article highlights the relationship between walruses and humans in and around the North Water polynya in a long-term perspective. The present study draws on a combination of biological, archaeological, archaeo-zoological, historical, and ethnographic sources covering the period from the 8th century AD to the late 20th century. The study demonstrates that the walrus was an important resource of meat, blubber, and other products throughout all the studied periods, if always supplemented by other kinds of game. It is suggested that walrus distribution and behaviour, as well as hunting strategies and technologies historically constituted a powerful component not only in forming human action and social life in the region but also in serving as an imaginative resource. It is further argued that the walrus and the walrus hunt still play a significant role in the present community living on the edge of the North Water, even if the hunt is increasingly circumscribed due to changing ice conditions.
This report re-examines the Morris Bay Kayak, which was discovered in Washington Land, Northwest Greenland in 1921. Kayaks rarely preserve archaeologically, and the find is especially significant because the closest Inuit group, the Inughuit, were thought to have lost the technology sometime before the nineteenth century. In this context, radiocarbon dating of caribou antler pieces from the kayak places the date of the assemblage as surprisingly recent. Through comparison with regional assemblages, we argue that the Morris Bay Kayak is representative of a locally developed tradition of kayaking that was practiced until shortly before the colonial period and that this has important implications for understanding the deeper history of Inughuit open-water hunting. Spanish Este informe examina nuevamente el Kayak de Bahía Morris, que fue descubierto en tierra de Washington, al noroeste de Groenlandia en 1921. Los kayaks raramente se conservan arqueológicamente, y el hallazgo es especialmente significativo porque el grupo Inuit más cercano, los Inughuit, se pensaba que habían perdido esta tecnología en algún momento antes del siglo XIX. En este contexto, la datación por radiocarbono de piezas de asta de caribú del kayak asocian estos restos a una fecha sorprendentemente reciente. Mediante la comparación con conjuntos regionales, argumentamos que el Kayak de Bahía Morris representa una tradición desarrollada localmente del uso de kayaks que se practicaba hasta poco antes de la época colonial, y discutimos las implicaciones que esto tiene para la comprensión de la historia más profunda de la caza en aguas abiertas de los Inughuit.
Full-text available
The GeoArk project conducted interdisciplinary studies between 2003 and 2008 to investigate the Thule culture (c. 1400 AD until c. 1850 AD) in the Wollaston Forland - Clavering Ø region (74°N). Faunal remains of recent excavations and re-analyses of previous excavations of Thule culture seasonal features, winter houses and middens are presented, with an emphasis on the two winter sites of Fladstrand and Dødemandsbugten. The faunal assemblages showed ringed seal (Phoca hispida) to be the key game species, although, with important contingents of narwhal (Monodon monoceros) and caribou (Rangifer tarandus). Thule subsistence was highly dependent on having a well developed procurement system and the sea- and landscape was used differentially during the annual cycle. Hvalros Ø, located at the recurring Sirius Water Polynya, was used as a seasonal aggregation site especially for hunting walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) throughout the entire Thule culture era. Being a predictable source of meat and blubber, the walrus was of fundamental importance to the Thule Inuit in order to cope with a harsh high arctic environment. The site locations of the study area revealed a continued similar usage of the sea- and landscape for centuries and the analyses documented only minor temporal changes in subsistence patterns.
Full-text available
Polynyas are areas of open water surrounded by ice. In the Canadian Arctic, the largest and best-known polynya is the North Water. There are also several similar, but smaller, recurring polynyas and shore lead systems. Polynyas appear to be of critical importance to arctic marine birds and mammals for feeding, reproduction and migration. Despite their obvious biological importance, most polynya areas are threatened by extensive disturbance and possible pollution as a result of proposed offshore petrochemical exploration and year-round shipping with ice-breaking capability. However, we cannot evaluate what the effects of such disruptions might be because to date we have conducted insufficient research to enable us to have a quantitative understanding of the critical ecological processes and balances that may be unique to polynya areas. It is essential that we rectify the situation because the survival of viable populations or subpopulations of several species of arctic marine birds and mammals may depend on polynyas.
Full-text available
Despite fish bone being rare in even the best preserved Classic Thule Inuit (ca. A.D. 1000–1400) faunal assemblages from the Canadian Arctic, it has often been assumed that fish played an important role in Thule economies. This is due to the prominent place of fishing in the harvesting practices of the Historic Inuit and the ubiquity of fishing implements in Thule artifact assemblages. Based on an evaluation of potential taphonomic, sampling, and interpretive biases and the artifactual and zooarchaeological evidence for harvesting of sea mammals, land mammals, fish, and birds, it appears that fishing was of generally limited importance in the eastern parts of the Canadian Arctic and before about A.D. 1400, likely due to resource scheduling conflicts. The nonetheless widespread occurrence of fishing gear invites consideration of alternative scenarios for the place of fishing in Thule society, in which a minor dietary role is not inconsistent with important cultural roles.
The Thule migration from Alaska to the eastern North American Arctic is central to the understanding of Inuit history. However, despite decades of study, its timing remains controversial, with recent reappraisals suggesting that it may have occurred much later than the date of A.D. 1000 most often assumed for it. In this paper, we present newly obtained radiocarbon dates from two early Thule sites, Nelson River (OhRh-1) and Washout (NjVi-2), located on the Beaufort Sea and Amundsen Gulf coasts. This region is crucial to any understanding of the migration, because Thule Inuit would have had to pass through it in order to reach the eastern Arctic. Nelson River in particular has long been considered a good candidate for the earliest Thule site east of Alaska, based on a number of lines of evidence including the presence of both Natchuk and Sicco harpoon heads. In this paper, we present new dates for Nelson River and Washout that demonstrate that neither site was occupied before the thirteenth century A.D. The new dates have profound implications for Arctic archaeology, because they strengthen the case for a thirteenth-century migration, and by doing so demonstrate that it was more rapid and widespread than has generally been believed. The dates also suggest that the "Classic" Thule period is a relatively brief phenomenon, lasting perhaps only 200 years or less, before being rapidly reorganized into the diversity of Inuit societies encountered in later Arctic history.
One of the least-known tangible assets of the Arctic Institute of North America (AINA) is its photographic collection, which includes images dating from the 1890s to the mid-twentieth century. These 4000 photographs - which reside, uncatalogued and rapidly deteriorating, in two file cabinets - are a valuable resource. The rich visual records contain important scientific information on all aspects of the Arctic environment, its geology, archaeology, geography, glaciology, and anthropology, as well as information on Arctic exploration and the cultural life of the indigenous people. One example of the richness of AINA's collection is the 142 photographs donated by Walter Wood, scientist and explorer, who was engaged in AINA's Snow Cornice Project of 1948 and the Icefield Ranges Research Project in the St. Elias Mountains from 1961 to 1972. Visual communication through photography, including motion pictures and television, has accelerated over the last half-century to a point difficult to imagine before this technological revolution. Today there is a growing recognition that photographs are more than an accessory to history's written text. They are an essential element in the very construction of that history, both written and oral. AINA's collection of photographs is no exception. AINA proposes to make the collection widely available by creating an electronic database. Each photograph will be researched and scanned into the computer using the University of Calgary's InMagic database software. The potential for the collection is enormous. Made available to the indigenous peoples of the North, it will help them to recall their own history. It will present information of value to anthropologists, archaeologists, professional historians, and scientists. Commercial and academic publications needing visual material will also be able to draw on AINA's photographic archive. Like other great archives worldwide, AINA's will be an immense asset, providing flexible access to a wealth of previously neglected information. ... An important aspect of the project will be to work with Native people who may have ties to the unidentified individuals and places depicted in so many of the photographs, in the hope that they can contribute memory culture to this rich visual heritage.
The harbor seal, though normally an animal of open water, ranges as far as 79°N on Ellesmere Island. It remains in the Canadian arctic the year round by residing in swiftly flowing water, both tidal and fresh, and at the edge of the fast ice. It actively ascends rivers, often far from the sea, and will live in lakes the year round where open water is available. This ability suggests that the supposedly land-locked race P. v. mellonae from Upper and Lower Seal Lakes, Ungava, may not have been isolated for any great time and casts doubt on the assertion that subspeciation has occurred from long isolation (5500 years ± 2500) during post-glacial uplift.
The abstract for this document is available on CSA Illumina.To view the Abstract, click the Abstract button above the document title.