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

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  • 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. *
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Lesley Howse
Études/Inuit/Studies
, vol. 37, n° 1, 2013, p. 103-125.
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"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
Arctic
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,
Canada. lesley.howse@utoronto.ca
104/L. HOWSE
Introduction
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.
REVISITING AN EARLY THULE…/105
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
century.
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,
REVISITING AN EARLY THULE…/107
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).
Taxon
House
NISP
%*
MNI
NISP
%
MNI
Goose
1
2.1
1
1
100
1
Eider
1
2.1
Common raven
45
95.7
4
Bird ind.
2
Bird total
49
1
Arctic hare
1
0.1
1
1
0.4
1
Whale
11
1.2
1
9
3.7
1
Narwhal/beluga
1
0.1
1
1
0.4
1
Bowhead whale
5
0.6
1
2
0.8
1
Dog
23
2.6
5**
2
0.8
1*
Dog/wolf
124
14.1
3
1.2
Arctic fox
6
0.7
1
Polar bear
27
3.1
2
1
0.4
1
Walrus
45
5.1
1
40
16.4
1
Bearded seal
2
0.2
1
2
0.8
1
Grey seal
1
0.1
1
Large seal
25
2.8
1
10
4
2
Large seal/walrus
7
0.8
1
0
Ringed seal
40
4.5
4
34
13.9
7
Harbour seal
1
0.1
1
1
0.4
1
Harp seal
3
0.3
1
1
0.4
1
Small seal
557
63.2
9
126
51.6
4
Caribou
1
0.1
1
Muskox
8
0.9
1
11
4.5
1
Mammal indeterminate
20
24
Large mammal
15
14
Large sea mammal
4
10
Mammal total
927
292
Total
976
REVISITING AN EARLY THULE…/109
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
REVISITING AN EARLY THULE…/111
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
mandible
0.84
2.50
0.50
atlas
0.54
3.00
1.00
axis
0.56
1.00
0.00
cervical
0.35
1.29
0.43
thoracic
0.34
1.93
0.87
lumbar
0.38
2.60
1.40
sacrum
0.43
2.00
1.25
rib
0.4
4.58
1.08
scapula
0.43
2.00
0.50
humerus, prox.
0.43
3.50
0.50
humerus, dist.
0.6
3.00
1.00
radius, prox.
0.63
1.50
2.00
radius, dist.
0.45
2.00
3.50
ulna, prox.
0.44
2.50
1.00
ulna, dist.
0.79
3.00
0.50
innominate
0.47
1.00
1.50
femur, prox.
0.5
4.00
0.50
femur, dist.
0.57
3.50
1.00
tibia, prox.
0.39
2.00
2.50
tibia, dist.
0.48
2.00
2.50
astragalus
0.45
1.50
1.00
calcaneum
0.45
3.00
1.00
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
practices.
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
FUI
Preference
ranking*
House
%MAU
Midden
%MAU
cranium
27.4
11
16.1
25.0
atlas
35.8
9 **
48.4
25.0
thoracic
24.9
no data
31.2
21.7
lumbar
32.9
8
41.9
35.0
rib
100
7
73.9
27.1
sternum
2.7
no data
3.6
11.1
scapula
19.8
6
32.3
12.5
humerus
10.7
5
56.5
37.5
radius/ulna
4.8
4
48.4
100.0
innominate
44.5
3
16.1
37.5
femur
4.5
2
64.5
75.0
tibia/fibula
16.5
1
56.5
87.5
front flipper
2.3
no data
53.8
0.8
hind flipper
7.7
no data
100.0
15.8
*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.
REVISITING AN EARLY THULE…/113
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.
Modifications
House
Midden
Cut marks
(87) 9.4%
(7) 2.4%
Gnaw marks
(106) 11.4%
(11) 3.8%
Burn
(3) 1.1%
0
Fragmentation (NISP:MNE)
1.1
1.4
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.
REVISITING AN EARLY THULE…/115
Table 5. Unfused seal element frequencies expressed as MNE (minimum number of elements).
Seal element
House 15 Total
Age fusion sequence
unfused
fusing
fused
total
Y: metatarsal 1, dist.
2
10
12
Y: pelvis, acetabulum
7
7
Y: scapula, supraglenoid tubercle
1
5
6
Total
3
22
25
% unfused
12%
J: femur, prox.
1
1
10
12
J: radius, prox.
3
6
9
J: humerus, dist.
2
1
6
9
Total
6
2
22
30
% unfused
%26.7
YA: femur, dist.
4
1
10
15
YA: humerus, prox.
2
2
6
10
YA: ulna, prox.
5
1
4
10
YA: tibia/fibula, prox.
2
2
4
8
Total
13
6
24
43
% unfused
%44.2
OA: ulna, dist.
5
1
3
9
OA: metatarsal 1, prox.
10
5
15
OA: radius, dist.
9
5
14
OA: tibia/fibula, dist.
7
1
1
9
Total
31
2
14
47
% unfused
%65.9
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
REVISITING AN EARLY THULE…/117
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.
Conclusion
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.
REVISITING AN EARLY THULE…/119
Acknowledgments
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.
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... 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. ...
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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. http://rdcu.be/GPDU
... 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. ...
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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. ...
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... 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). ...
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