The mummies of Qilakitsoq

The mummies of Qilakitsoq and the Inuit baby that captured hearts around the world

(Read the article on one page)

His little face still stares upwards, as if eternally waiting for his mother.  From the moment he was discovered, the little Inuit baby captured hearts with his photograph plastered on magazines and news stories around the world. When he was first found, he was believed to be a doll, but it was soon discovered that it was actually the body of a six-month old baby boy. He was buried alive with his already dead mother – presumably because there was no one left to care for him.

The small Inuit baby was found along with a two-year-old boy, and six women of various ages, who were buried in two separate graves protected by a rock that overhung a shallow cave. The bodies were naturally mummified by the sub-zero temperatures and dry, dehydrating winds, providing a remarkable opportunity to learn about the Greenland Inuit of half a millennium ago – they are the oldest preserved remains ever to be found there.

An Inuit mother with her child

An Inuit mother with her child. Photo credit .

Dated to around 1475 AD, the mummies were unearthed purely by accident at an abandoned Inuit settlement called Qilakitsoq, by two brothers who were hiking in the area and became curious about a stack of rocks.  Qilakitsoq, which means “place of the small sky”, is located on the Nuussuaq Penninsula, on the shore of Uummannaq Fjord in northwestern Greenland.

The bodies were found stacked on top of each other with layers of animal skin in between. They were in two graves, a metre apart. The first grave contained three women, a two-year-old boy, and the six-month-old baby, while the second grave contained three women. DNA studies indicated that there were two sets of related mummies and one mummy unrelated to either of the groups, who is thought to have perhaps married into the family.

A depiction of the two graves containing the mummies

A depiction of the two graves containing the mummies. Photo credit .

All of the mummies were well-nourished in the period before death on a diet that consisted of 75% seafood and 25% from plants and animals, such as reindeer. Accompanying the eight bodies were seventy-eight items of clothing, most made out of seal skin.

The two-year-old boy was found to have Down’s Syndrome and may have been left out to die of exposure because of his condition. This was a common practice among the Inuit of the time because the society could not afford to support people who they felt would have no ability to contribute to obtaining food, making clothing, or building shelter.

One of the older women was found to be deaf and blind and studies revealed that she suffered from a variety of conditions, including a malignant tumour.

Five of the six women had facial tattoos, which were only discovered after infrared photographs revealed black lines on their faces. The lines were on the forehead and arched over the eyebrows. Two of the women also had a dot tattooed on their forehead. Each woman had tattooed cheeks, while three had lines tattooed beneath their chins. Tattoos were customary among adult Inuit women and variations in styles reflected different tribal origins.

The mystery surrounding their deaths has intrigued scientists for more than three decades. Inuit never buried women and children separately from men, so the fact that the two graves contained only women and children has puzzled researchers.  An initial theory was that they all, apart from the baby, drowned together in a umiaq accident, which, being a woman’s boat, would have answered the question of why there were no men found in the graves. However, studies of the remains seem to rule out this possibility and, apart from the baby, the two-year-old boy, and the elder lady with the tumour, researchers could find no evidence relating to how the others died. Different theories such as freezing, food poisoning, or epidemic are all unsupported by any evidence, and scientists have been unable to determine if they died at the same time or not. 

The only thing that is known for sure is that the little Inuit baby was buried alive.  Inuit custom dictated that a tribe might suffocate or bury a child alive if they could not find a woman to care for it after the death of its mother. Whatever the cause of the death for the others, it seems the baby was sent to accompany his mother to her grave.

The Greenland Mummies have shed new light on the every-day lives of Inuit people who lived over 500 years ago, providing fascinating insight into the culture and methods of survival of the indigenous people of Greenland in the fifteenth century. Yet for this particular group of women and children, there are still many unanswered questions.

Comments

Wow! that's fantastic man!

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

Some of the Mitla mosaics.
Unique and curious designs plaster the walls of the most popular Zapotec archaeological site in Mexico. They are called the Mitla mosaics and are unrivalled in their precision and quality of workmanship. But a mystery surrounds the carved symbols as some researchers suggest they contain a coded language just waiting to be deciphered.

Myths & Legends

Open Book Photo
A legend is a tale regarded as historical even though it has not been proven, and the term “myth” can refer to common yet false ideas. Many myths and legends describe our history, but they are often treated skeptically. This is because many of them, while explaining a phenomenon, involve divine or supernatural beings.

Human Origins

Noah's Sacrifice - watercolor circa 1896–1902 by James Tissot
The imperfect state of archaeological researches in the Near East impedes any definite identification of the original race or races that created the earliest civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. According to Gordon Childe, however, the predominant racial element in the earliest graves in the region from Elam to the Danube is the ‘Mediterranean’.

Ancient Technology

Invention of Wheel - Sumer
In today’s world, technology is developing at an unprecedented rate. The latest gadget today is tomorrow’s antique. As a result of this rapid development of technology, we often take things for...

Ancient Places

Google Earth image of manmade stone structures in Saudi Arabia
Deep in the heart of Saudi Arabia, 400 peculiar stone structures have been found, dating back thousands of years ago. These stone features were discovered by archaeologists with the use of satellite imagery, identifying what they call stone "gates" in an extremely unwelcome and harsh area of the Arabian Peninsula.

Opinion

The ancient and mysterious Sphinx, Giza, Egypt.
In 1995, NBC televised a prime-time documentary hosted by actor Charlton Heston and directed by Bill Cote, called Mystery of the Sphinx. The program centered on the research and writings of John Anthony West, a (non-academic) Egyptologist, who, along with Dr. Robert Schoch, a professor of Geology at Boston University, made an astounding discovery on the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article