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Life-size Dorset masks. (500-1000 AD) The masks were carved from driftwood and painted. They also once had fur moustaches and eyebrows attached with pegs. Scholars believe that the masks were probably used by shamans in rituals to cure illness, control the weather, or to aid in hunts.

Preserved in Legends and Ice: What Led to the Extinction of the Dorset Culture?

Before the Inuit’s ancestors conquered the Arctic region of what we now call Canada and Greenland, there is evidence of another remarkable Paleo-Eskimo culture– the Dorset. Soon after the arrival of the newcomers, these “gentle giants” mysteriously lost their land, and their lives soon followed, as changes arrived in the frigid northern landscape. Only legends and elaborate artifacts were left behind to tell their story.

Uncertain Origins of the Dorset People

While the emergence of the Dorset people is unconfirmed, it is evident that the Dorset occupied much of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland from 500 BC to 1000 AD. Archaeological evidence shows that their culture continued to exist until 1300 AD, however the origins of the Dorset people are not completely understood.

Some scholars believe that the Dorset culture arose from another earlier group of people living further west in the Arctic. Others have suggested that the Woodland or Archaic cultures went north. A third popular explanation is that the Dorset people emerged from a Pre-Dorset culture living in the Eastern Arctic of present-day Canada, with almost no outside influence. This lack of influence from outsiders was a prevailing aspect of the Dorset culture.

Characteristics of the Dorset Culture

Despite the lack of clear information on the origins of the Dorset people, they left behind substantial archaeological evidence with help from the cold, dry Arctic environment. Artifacts show that the Dorset were well-prepared and adapted to the cold northern climate and there is some proof that the Dorset were the first in the Arctic to live in igloo (snow house) camps, although they also had stone dwellings in the Late Dorset period, and used tents when they moved during the summers. As for their livelihood, the Dorset are said to have thrived on hunting sea mammals at openings through the ice and by fishing.

 A walrus hunt in Greenland.

A walrus hunt in Greenland. ( Public Domain )

The Inuit oral histories have provided some more details about the Dorset people. Calling them the Tuniit (Tunit), the legends tell of a group of giants that were thought to have had powerful magic that made them very strong - supposedly a Dorset man was so strong that it was easy for one man to singlehandedly crush the neck of a walrus and then drag the body to camp. Nonetheless, their strength and size did not make the Dorset prone to fighting, instead they were often described as timid and keeping to themselves.

The Dorset were also recognized as creative, innovative, and highly skilled craftspeople. Recent research has shown, for example, that the Dorset people knew how to spin yarn. This goes against the common belief that Viking settlers were the ones to teach this skill to the Inuit people. The people of the Dorset culture were adept clothes-makers and there is even a suggestion that the hair from bears and foxes could have been used to make their yarn.

The famous characteristic of elaborate craftsmanship tends to be recognized more often in the numerous carvings depicting humans and animals, as well as driftwood figurines and masks which have been found across Dorset sites. The interest in “artistic” objects even is said to have prevailed over the importance of creating arguably more useful objects, such as harpoon heads and knives (which also tended to be decorative), at some locations.

Dorset harpoon head.

Dorset harpoon head. ( Canadian Museum of History )

Of course the concern for human-animal relationships was also vital to life in the harsh Arctic climate, and thus influenced Dorset artwork, but many scholars have also argued that the Dorset were a deeply ritualistic and spiritualistic culture. For example, there is a prominence of carvings showing polar bears and falcons (both great hunters) that were thought to have been worn as amulets.

Dorset ivory polar bear figurine.

Dorset ivory polar bear figurine. ( CC BY 2.0 )

Another example is seen in the numerous animal carvings with holes gouged into their chests or throats, some of these artifacts even have wooden stakes attached to the “wounds,” that suggest that the Dorset ritually “killed” the animals before a hunt. 

Furthermore, drum frames, wooden masks, human-shaped “puppets,” “sucking tubes” (for curing illness), antler wands with strange faces, and small bell-shaped ivory artifacts all point to the Dorset having taken part in ritualistic (some say Shamanistic) practices.

Small bell-shaped Dorset artifacts. Scholars remain uncertain of their purpose, but believe they may have been used in important rituals.

Small bell-shaped Dorset artifacts. Scholars remain uncertain of their purpose, but believe they may have been used in important rituals. ( Canadian Museum of History )

The Mysterious Decline of the Dorset

There is no surprise that the extensive archaeological data shining a light into the lives of the Dorset people has caught the attention of many scholars. Evidence also shows that there was a steep decline in the area the Dorset covered by 1300 AD, and by 1500 they had apparently disappeared from the region entirely. The question thus arises: what became of the Dorset?

Map of cultures in Greenland, Labrador, Newfoundland, and the Canadian arctic from 900, 1100, 1300, and 1500 AD. Note how the Dorset culture was prominent in the early years and dramatically declined.

Map of cultures in Greenland, Labrador, Newfoundland, and the Canadian arctic from 900, 1100, 1300, and 1500 AD. Note how the Dorset culture was prominent in the early years and dramatically declined. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

One of the most popular ideas of the past was that the Dorset simply was absorbed by the later Thule culture (probably through intermarriage). As the maps above show, the Thule took over the areas that were initially inhabited by the Dorset people.

Another hypothesis was that the Dorset transformed into the isolated Sadlermiut group. This was thought possible due to the apparent Dorset traditions that were seen in the Sadlermiut. Nonetheless, later information has proven that both of these hypotheses are false.

Drawing of a Sadlermiut man on inflated walrus skins bringing two dried salmon and a flint-headed arrow as a peace offering to newcomers. (1824) By Captain George Francis Lyon

Drawing of a Sadlermiut man on inflated walrus skins bringing two dried salmon and a flint-headed arrow as a peace offering to newcomers. (1824) By Captain George Francis Lyon. ( Public Domain )

DNA Analysis Searches for Answers

For a DNA study in 2014, well-preserved samples from human remains originating in Arctic Siberia, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland were initially difficult to obtain. Difficulty arose due to the common practice of the Arctic cultures to bury their dead on the surface instead of below the hard permafrost. This act meant that many of the remains were often frozen and thawed many times over the years and much of the DNA was damaged or destroyed.

Nevertheless, the scientists obtained 26 whole genome data samples. The results of the study have rocked previous theories on both the arrival of end of the Dorset culture. As the study presented in 2014 says:

“We show that Paleo-Eskimos (~3000 BC to 1300 AD) represent a migration pulse into the Americas independent of both Native American and Inuit expansions. Furthermore, the genetic continuity characterizing the Paleo-Eskimo period was interrupted by the arrival of a new population, representing the ancestors of present-day Inuit, with evidence of past gene flow between these lineages. Despite periodic abandonment of major Arctic regions, a single Paleo-Eskimo metapopulation likely survived in near-isolation for more than 4000 years, only to vanish around 700 years ago.”

With this new information, scientists began the search for new reasons for the decline of the Dorset culture. One possibility is that the more warlike and technologically advanced Thule culture massacred all of the Dorset. William Fitzhugh, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and one of the authors of the DNA study explained this possibility to Science magazine:

This meeting between these two peoples would have been a very stark meeting, between people with very conservative, beautiful stone technology and beautiful artwork and so on, but socially and economically, they were just no match for this onslaught from this Thule machine. ... They were, in a sense, sitting ducks.”

Dorset soapstone polar bear. The Dorset preferred to use soapstone for their art in Newfoundland, Canada.

Dorset soapstone polar bear. The Dorset preferred to use soapstone for their art in Newfoundland, Canada. ( Newfoundland Museum )

Oral histories from the Inuit seem to support this hypothesis, and the Canadian Museum of History captured the following quotes from people whose ancestors were present at the end of the Dorset culture:

"The Tunit were strong people, but timid and easily put to flight. Nothing is told of their lust to kill."
Netsilik Inuit, 1923

"The Tunit were a strong people, and yet they were driven from their villages by others who were more numerous, by many people of great ancestors; but so greatly did they love their country, that when they were leaving Uglit, there was a man who, out of desperate love for his village, harpooned the rocks and made the stones fly about like bits of ice."
Ivaluardjuk, Igloolik, 1922

Apart from the newcomers destroying the older culture, another issue became evident through the 2014 DNA study – the Dorset people appeared to have descended from just a single maternal line. "I can't remember any other evidence of a population having such low diversity in the mitochondrial DNA," senior study author and director of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen's Natural History Museum of Denmark, Eske Willerslev told Science magazine. With an estimation that the Dorset population only numbered up to 4,000 people, there is the possibility that a lack of genetic diversity may have left the Dorset open to problems from inbreeding or disease.

A Lament for the Dorset People

The Canadian poet, Al Purdy, grieves over the end of the Dorset people in his poem Lament for the Dorsets. The first parts of his poem are a fitting tribute to the extinct culture:

Animal bones and some mossy tent rings
scrapers and spearheads carved ivory swans
all that remains of the Dorset giants
who drove the Vikings back to their long ships
talked to spirits of earth and water
– a picture of terrifying old men
so large they broke the backs of bears
so small they lurk behind bone rafters
in the brain of modern hunters
among good thoughts and warm things
and come out at night
to spit on the stars…

The big men with clever fingers
who had no dogs and hauled their sleds
over the frozen northern oceans
awkward giants

killers of seal
they couldn’t compete with the little men
who came from the west with dogs
Or else in a warm climatic cycle
The seals went back to cold waters
and the puzzled Dorsets scratched their heads
with hairy thumbs around 1350 A.D.
– couldn’t figure it out
went around saying to each other
plaintively
..............'What’s wrong? What happened?
..............Where are the seals gone?’
And died.

Featured Image: Life-size Dorset masks. (500-1000 AD) The masks were carved from driftwood and painted. They also once had fur moustaches and eyebrows attached with pegs. Scholars believe that the masks were probably used by shamans in rituals to cure illness, control the weather, or to aid in hunts. Source: Canadian Museum of History

By: Alicia McDermott

References

Boyle, A. (2014). Dorset DNA: Genes Trace the Tale of the Arctic’s Long-Gone ‘Hobbits.’ http://www.nbcnews.com/science/science-news/dorset-dna-genes-trace-tale-arctics-long-gone-hobbits-n191156

Community University Research Alliance (CURA) (2003). From Tuniit to Inuit. http://www.avataq.qc.ca/en/Institute/Departments/Archaeology/Projects-and-Activities/Research-projects/CURA-From-the-Tuniit-to-Inuit

Encyclopedia Britannica (n.d.) Dorset Culture. http://www.britannica.com/topic/Dorset-culture

Park, R. (n.d.) Dorset Culture. http://anthropology.uwaterloo.ca/ArcticArchStuff/dorset.html

Pastore, R. (1998). Palaeo-Eskimo Peoples. http://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/aboriginal/palaeo-eskimo.php

Pringle, H. (2014). Ancient DNA Sheds Light on Arctic’s Earliest People. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/08/140828-arctic-migration-genome-genetics-dna-eskimos-inuit-dorset/

Raghavan, M., et al. (2014). The genetic prehistory of the New World Arctic. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/345/6200/1255832.full

Smithsonian Institute (2002). Arctic Studies Center Newsletter. http://www.mnh.si.edu/arctic/html/pdf/news02.pdf

Sutherland, P. & McGhee, R. (n.d.) Lost Visions, Forgotten Dreams. http://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/archeo/paleoesq/peexheng.shtml

Comments

I've been fascinated by these pre-Inuit Alaskan cultures for a long time. They lived in climates we would never find acceptable today. Why did they stay there? Thank you for this overview.

Native American cultures in the Northern US talk about pale skinned giants. Could these peoples be part of the same culture?

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