Zeroing in on Inuit origins through archaeology and ethnography

This past summer, after years of fieldwork mostly in the Middle East, I began my first archaeological research in the Arctic.

This represents quite a change for me, and not just because I was used to seeing camels rather than walrus.

Compared with the Middle East, archaeological sites in the Arctic are generally smaller, were occupied for relatively brief periods of time, and are more widely scattered across the landscape. This makes finding sites and interpreting the broader picture of the human story in the Arctic more difficult.

Two photos of an archaeologist in the field in Egypt and Nunavut

Museum archaeologist Scott Rufolo touring the Giza Plateau in Egypt, and (right) excavating the remains of a prehistoric house on an island near Igloolik, Nunavut. Images: © S. Rufolo (left); © S. P. A. Desjardins (right).

And it’s why my new research project, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Groningen’s Arctic Centre, is so interesting and valuable.

Map of northeastern Canada

The Foxe Basin is rich in wildlife in part because local areas of ocean remain ice-free even during the depths of winter. This enables numerous species of birds and marine mammals, including walrus, to maintain relatively large year-round populations, ones that sustain human communities. Image: S. Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature

The project is documenting a rare grouping of several densely concentrated archaeological sites located in the Foxe Basin. Together they contain remains spanning several cultural periods, providing a nearly continuous archaeological record documenting several thousand years.

This concentration of sites and multi-period representation is due in large part to the natural history of the Foxe Basin. The geography of the region contributes to a comparatively moderate climate with seasonal sea-ice patterns favourable to many forms of marine life, including large animals such as the walrus. In fact, walruses are able to live in the basin year-round, providing a valuable and stable food supply for humans.

Walruses on sea ice.

Walruses (Odobenus rosmarus) in the Foxe Basin, such as this mother and calf, are able to reside in the area year-round due to the presence of polynyas, areas of open water within the winter ice. Other mammals, birds and fish in the region include: ringed seal, narwhal, beluga, and caribou; ptarmigan and geese; and Arctic Char and Cod. Image: © Ansgar Walk (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The rich archaeological remains preserved here provide a rare opportunity to explore the transition from ancient Thule to modern Inuit cultures. The Thule, the immediate ancestors of the Inuit, were a people who spread eastward from Alaska beginning around AD 1100, reaching Greenland within 200 years and displacing the earlier Dorset culture of the central and eastern Arctic.

Ethnogenesis is the emergence of a new cultural group who view themselves as ethnically distinct from previous societies, and surrounding contemporary ones. The ethnogenesis of Inuit from Thule culture started in the 17th century, but this transition is not well understood.

We began our three-year project with a field season at Avvajja. It’s an archaeological site on an island just to the west of Igloolik Island that represents the very end-point of the Thule-to-Inuit continuum. Avvajja was used as a winter settlement by the Inuit up to the early 1950s, when people relocated to the new hamlet of Igloolik. There are elders alive today who remember living at Avvajja as children.

People arriving by boat on an Arctic shoreline.

A group of elders from Igloolik arrives at Avvajja to share their childhood memories of living there. Image: S. Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Photograph of archaeologist speaking with a woman and taking notes.

Project director Dr. Sean P. A. Desjardins and the team’s translator discuss responses from Inuit elders about how Avvajja living spaces and activity areas were used. Image: S. Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Two days of our fieldwork were devoted to interviewing elders on site so that they could share their memories of living at Avvajja as children. Combining mapping and excavations with these interviews will enable us to illuminate the archaeological record to a greater extent than would be possible through digging alone.

This coming summer, work will continue at the site of Uglit on the Melville Peninsula, where a longer season will connect the historic occupation at Avvajja to the immediately preceding centuries (AD 1600-1900) during which the Thule-to-Inuit transition occurred.

As we gather more data and deepen our chronological representation, we hope to contribute greater detail to our knowledge of the cultural shifts that signal the rise of Inuit society — a culture that I am discovering is just as fascinating and rich as those that initially drew my interest to the Middle East.

Photograph of the archaeological remains of an Inuit winter house.

The remains of several Inuit winter houses, many in use up to the early 1950s, are present at Avvajja. This house is typical, with a low, stone foundation partially covered in the sod that formed the base of the home. Image: S. Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Traditional Inuit foods with an inset photo of a community gathering.

At the end of the field season, a community gathering was held at the site so that elders could relate their stories of life at Avvajja directly to their family and friends while seated around the remains of their former houses (inset). Traditional foods served included frozen fish, raw seal meat, and igunaq (ᐃᒍᓇᖅ), fermented walrus (the two large yellow and red masses on the right in the main photo). Image: S. Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

An archaeologist sieving soil with an inset photo of an archaeological find

Work at Avvajja included the excavation of a prehistoric house dating to the Late Dorset period, around 1,200 years ago. Collected sediments were sieved in order to recover small stone tools. The excavation produced a mystery artifact (inset). Now at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa for treatment, it may be the first known example of clothing from the Dorset culture. Image: S. P. A. Desjardins, © S. P. A. Desjardins (main photo); S. Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature (inset)

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