The mummies of Qilakitsoq

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

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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.

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