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Unravelling the Spellbinding Story of the Inuksuit – Mysterious Structures from the Prehistoric Arctic

Unravelling the Spellbinding Story of the Inuksuit – Mysterious Structures from the Prehistoric Arctic

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While the first pyramids were being built on the sands of the desert in Egypt, people in the cold north were creating a very different civilization. They produced a mysterious system of communication based on megaliths, many of which have survived until today.

An Inuksuk (also known as Inukshuk, Inukhuk, and Inussuk - plural Inuksuit) is a figure made of boulders or stones. They were a way to communicate amongst humans throughout the Arctic region. Tradition and recent researchers say that the structures were constructed by the Inuit, Inupiat, Kalaallit, Yupik, and other inhabits of the Arctic.

The Inuit are a native tribe found in many parts of the Arctic region. Nowadays, they are considered as one of the most dispersed people of the world. Their population is believed to be around 60,000. Most of them live in Canada, Greenland, Alaska, and Siberia. Their languages belong to the Inuit-Inupiaq branch of the Eskimo–Aleut language family, but it is unknown how long these languages have existed. It is possible that the people who created Inuksuit even spoke a similar language to their descendants.

Distribution of Inuit dialects.

Distribution of Inuit dialects. (Public Domain)

Stones of Kind Advice

Communication among the tribes who lived in such a huge territory was difficult, especially in prehistoric and ancient times. The oldest known Inuksuit comes from the period circa 2,400 to 1,800 BC. They’re found in the region known as Mingo Lake, in southwest Baffin Island. An Inuksuk provided specific information.  The name of the construction means ''to act in the capacity of a human''. It is based on the word ''inuk'', meaning ''a human being''.

Inupiat in a kayak, Noatak, Alaska, c. 1929 (photo by Edward S. Curtis)

Inupiat in a kayak, Noatak, Alaska, c. 1929 (photo by Edward S. Curtis) (Public Domain)

Inuksuit were very helpful for communicating ideas and are believed to have had many useful functions. Researchers actually think that all of the different functions will never be rediscovered. Inuksuit were definitely used for navigation during hunting, as a place to find important messages, sacred sites, and points of reference. They were also used to leave messages where food was available or about possible dangers in the area. The structures made of stone allowed people who lived many miles from each other to communicate. This system stayed in use for many years, and only lost its popularity with the advancement of newer technologies. They were helpful symbols that demonstrate collaboration within communities.

Inuksuk in the vicinity of Kuujjuarapik, Quebec.

Inuksuk in the vicinity of Kuujjuarapik, Quebec. (Public Domain)

A Friend Who Was Always Waiting

An Inuksuk is a stone figure with the shape of a human - it has a head, body, legs, and arms. It is visible from vast distances. Inuksuit are similar and often mistaken with another Inuit construction, called Inunnguaq. Inunnguaq have a similar shape, but their purpose was symbolic, not functional.

That being said, the shapes and types of Inuksuit can also vary. Some are bigger, others smaller, some are thicker, etc. The way they look often depended on what kind of stones were around. Scholars say that people usually built the structures by using local materials. However, the difficult climate did not support the building of hardly anything. The cold and ice always made life in this territory difficult. People were often more focused on surviving than creating pieces of art. Making an Inuksuk was a challenge, but people usually stacked stones into a sort of a pyramid. The construction had to be massive to be seen from far away.

Inuksuit at the Foxe Peninsula (Baffin Island), Canada.

Inuksuit at the Foxe Peninsula (Baffin Island), Canada. (CC BY-SA 2.5)

It is known that sometimes this stone feature was used to inform others where to find a precious weapon, locate certain animals, or to warn of possible dangers connected with enemies or weather. Members of the same tribe or family used to leave signs which were only understood by their own relatives or companions.

Based on these signs, people created trails. The Inuksuit created the system of constructions so that each structure could be seen by the one before and after it. People who could understand the system had aid in finding the right way to travel and could recognize where they were. This was especially important during the snowiest period of the year, when other ways of navigation were challenged.

Inuit traditions show that Inuksuit were very significant for other reasons as well. For example, shamans believed that an Inuksuk was able to tell people which areas they should stay far away from. For this and other reasons, they were sometimes worshiped as a protective spirit which could help by providing protection or telling people which way they should choose. The most powerful were said to be the ones with red stones used in their construction.

The mascot logo of the 2010 Winter Olympics, located on Whistler Mountain.

The mascot logo of the 2010 Winter Olympics, located on Whistler Mountain. (CC BY 3.0)

Inuksuit were also helpful for the first Europeans who arrived in the 11th century. There is even evidence that Vikings who arrived in Greenland followed the Inuit inventions and created another Inuksuk. In 1576, the English explorer Martin Frobisher described the constructions in his travel notes. The prehistoric system of communication was known and also used by 17th century travelers like William Baffin, Robert Bylot, and Henry Hudson.

The Inuksuit of Nunavut

Since the 19th century, Inuksuit have been the symbol of the region now called Nunavut. This territory, which contains former parts of the modern Canadian provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Alberta, was created in 1870; although it only officially existed in 1999. The first of April is officially known as Nunavut Day. The descendants of local tribes who built Inuksuit still create the simple but impressive structures that have been known since prehistoric times.

An inuksuk at Igloolik, Nunavut, Canada.

An inuksuk at Igloolik, Nunavut, Canada. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Nowadays, tourists who visit northern Canada are still amazed with the beauty and simplicity of the local wilderness. Many Inuksuit have been rebuilt and groups of volunteers continue to look for the remains of old Inuksuit to bring them back to life. Despite the years, Inuksuit are still meaningful and important for the local culture, which believes that the stone constructions will always protect and help them when necessary.

Featured image: Inukshuk. Source: Ravi Joshi/ Youtube Screenshot

By Natalia Klimczak



Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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