Dorset Palaeoeskimos

[...] The varied territorial range of the Dorset people, their migratory habits, and their social structures enabled them to survive. Their numbers were sufficient to carry on and transmit their cultural knowledge from family to family, from one region to the next, even when a significant part of their territory became too marginal to sustain them. In time, dwelling styles and tools, particularly harpoon heads, looked a little different, while the ceremonial and spiritual aspects of their lives became greatly ritualized. In the High Arctic, the stage was set for the final appearance of the Palaeoeskimo.

It was early August 1977; the midnight sun barely escaped the mountain peaks on the norther horizon. Our helicopter survey flight [...] As we turned, I found myself staring directly down at a most unusual, stone-walled structure; obviously not a natural arrangement of stones. [...] Before us were the remains of one of the largest late Dorset communal structures ever found in the Arctic. [...] Other amazing features in the rocky landscape were long rows of stones. [...] During the winter, we had often speculated about what they could be. We hikes up the gently slope of a small ridge [...] the long stone walls were as outstanding as I remembered them. Just as we started down toward the structure, we stumbled over a long row of stones and boulders. [...] The function of this row was obvious. Before us was a series of rectangular, slab-lined cooking hearths, each with its own adjoining platform, probably for the meat to be cooked. [...] For the longest time we sat silently, marvelling at the spectacular landscape before us. The dark blue waters of the polynya [ice-free area in the Arctic] teemed with eiders, oldsquaws, terns, and gulls. While some walrus floated on the surface, filling their lungs with air for the next feeding rush to the next feeding rush to the bottom, others rested in big heaps on ice floes, drifting slowly with the tidal currents. Three loons flew low overhead with their strident calls reverberating off the cliff walls of a small lake near our camp. [...]

The night was vibrant with the sounds of life; small wonder people had chosen this as their annual gathering place year after year. [...] Considering the dependable occurrence of open water, abundant wildlife, and good weather, it was easy to understand why the Flagler Bay polynya had been such an attractive spring destination for the Dorset people who had built large communal structures and long rows of cooking hearths. When had they arrived in the Smith Sound region? Why had they migrated north? What happened to them?

To date, we have discovered five longhouses near the Flagler Bay polynya, two at Cape Faraday, and we know of two others just north of Etah on the Greenland side of Smith Sound. Mapping the polynya sites, especially the huge Longhouse site, took a long time. The 45-metre-long structure was located on a fairly level plateau [ The ground was littered with refuse bones and fragments of stone, ivory, and bone tools. [...]

[The communal structure on the Longhouse site is nearly three times longer than any of the other communal structures we have located on the central east coast of Ellesmere Island. Could such a massive construction have been completely roofed with skins? It seems most unlikely. [...] Excavations confirmed our initial impression that the interior had been divided into a series of semicircular stone arrangements curving inward from the side walls, possibly the space used by each family, leaving a fairly narrow passage down through the length of the structure. [...]

Refuse bones tell us that the communal sites had been used during the summer. [...] The variation in lengths undoubtedly reflects variations in the number of families using the structures. [...] In each case, the length of the structure divided by the number of individual family hearths suggested that each family occupied an interior space about two metres in length. The calculation gave us a good idea of the number of people at these annual gatherings: anywhere from about 20 to 120. [...]

[...] The late Dorset culture is known for its beautiful ivory carvings: delicate, anatomically detailed figurines representing nearly all the animals in their world, creatures whose spirits had to be appeased at all costs. [[[] Not surprisingly, the most common figurines are those of polar bars and humans. [...]

Most of the carvings were found inside or in close proximity to the communal structures [...]

One artifact apparently took on great significance: the harpoon head. [...] As one of the most important tools in the hunter’s kit, the harpoon head brought in the greatest amount of food [...] the tool used to hunt the animal had to be treated with great respect. The crisscrossing of incised lines on the face of the harpoon heads may have been ownership markings, although we cannot know that for certain. [...]

There is an extraordinary sameness to the material culture of the late Dorset period throughout the Arctic. The faultless carvings, the harpoon heads, and lithic artifacts are almost identical wherever they are found, suggesting fairly rapid, long-range diffusion. The location of settlements attest to a population very much at ease with open-water hunting. The Dorset people place great value on the annual spring and summer gathering, which was made possible by identifying exceptionally rich and predictable hunting localities. [...] The annual assemblage was an important social occasion, a fertile ground for exchanging ideas, finding marriage partners, and strengthening cultural identity. [...] Geographically later Dorset population [...] reached farther than any prior Palaeoeskimo expansion: from Labrador in the south to Victoria Island in the west and the Kane Basin region in the north.

[...] The Dorset people were the last descendants of the true Arctic pioneers, the last Palaeoeskimo. This time, however, the disappearance of one group of people didn’t result in a long period of human abandonment. Instead, the Smith Sound region became the domain of the Thule culture Inuit, the Arctic whale hunters.

Source: Peter Schledermann, "Voices in Stone. A Personal Journey into the Arctic Past" (Calgary: The Arctic Institute of North America and the University of Calgary, 1996), 84, 85- 102.

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