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Adapting to a Frozen Coastal Environment

Abstract and Keywords

In the Arctic, people experience some of the most profound seasonal changes anywhere on earth: the temperature and amount of daylight differ tremendously between summer and winter, the nature and extent of the usable landscape varies enormously with the annual formation and dissolution of the sea ice, and the composition and abundance of the fauna changes dramatically due to most species' annual migrations. Moreover, because the sea ice environment melts every summer, all direct traces of human use of that landscape are lost annually. Therefore, to a greater extent than in most archaeological situations, our understanding of the history of human use of the sea ice part of the coastal environment must be inferential.

Keywords: coastal environment, Arctic, seasonal changes, frozen environment, fauna changes, landscape, adaptation

In the Arctic, people experience some of the profoundest seasonal changes anywhere on earth: the temperature and amount of daylight differ tremendously between summer and winter, the nature and extent of the usable landscape varies enormously with the annual formation and dissolution of the sea ice, and the composition and abundance of the fauna changes dramatically due to most species’ annual migrations. Moreover, because the sea ice environment melts every summer, all direct traces of human use of that landscape are lost annually. Therefore, to a greater extent than in most archaeological situations, our understanding of the history of human use of the sea ice part of the coastal environment must be inferential.

Environmental and Ethnographic Background


Adapting to a Frozen Coastal EnvironmentClick to view larger

Figure 10.1 Map showing locations mentioned in the text (cross-hatched area encompasses the regions occupied by prehistoric Arctic populations).

The Arctic lies beyond the treeline, the northern limit of continuous forest (Figure 10.1). It is characterized by tundra, which is associated with permafrost: subsurface deposits that remain frozen year-round. Above the permafrost only a thin “active layer” at the surface of the ground thaws every summer. The amount and nature of tundra vegetation varies, but little of it is edible by humans, apart from some berry species. Important terrestrial resources include large land mammals, which provide food, skins for clothing and shelter, and raw materials such as bone, antler, and (p. 114) sinew for manufacture of implements. The most important large land mammal species is caribou, although musk ox is significant in some regions.

The sea forms an important part of the Arctic environment. However, Arctic seas are ice-free for only a relatively small portion of the year. For the rest of the time, they are covered by a thick layer of ice that is recreated annually sometime during the early autumn and then disappears sometime during the summer. Within the channels separating the islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, the sea freezes in almost unbroken expanses. On coasts facing the open ocean, a wide strip of “landfast” ice forms during the winter. The edge of the landfast ice, where it meets the open ocean, is known as the floe edge. The sea ice is an extremely dynamic environment, broken by leads (linear stretches of open water that are created when cracks in the ice are forced open by wind or currents) and polynyas (local patches of permanently or semipermanently open water that are kept that way by fast-moving currents).

For the indigenous people of the Arctic, sea mammals furnished food and skins, but they were vital in the wood-poor regions because they also permitted heating and cooking with fuel in the form of blubber. Important sea mammal species included ringed, harp, harbor, and bearded seals; sea lions; walrus; and narwhal, beluga, and bowhead whales. Ringed seals were especially important in many regions because they are nonmigratory and thus available year round; the other species are migratory to varying degrees and therefore less available or unavailable during the winter.

At the time of European Contact, Inuit adaptations to Arctic coastal landscapes were both complex and diverse. The capsule ethnographic sketch given here most closely reflects the traditional annual round of the Central Inuit of the Canadian Arctic.

(p. 115) Starting at the time the sea ice broke up, many groups would be camping in sites along the coast, hunting seals or fishing from the remaining ice edge or from the shore, or using skin boats to hunt sea mammals. Later in the summer and into the autumn, some people would move inland to hunt caribou. At that time, people would also use weirs to obtain fish such as Arctic char as they returned from the ocean to overwinter in lakes. By early winter, everyone would have returned to the coast to await the sea ice becoming strong enough for travel. In regions where the floe edge was not too distant, people might continue to camp at the coast throughout the winter, traveling to the floe edge for hunting. In regions where the ocean froze completely, they had to rely on hunting ringed seals at their breathing holes. This necessitated moving out onto the sea ice and living in snow houses, moving camp every 10 days to two weeks throughout the winter as the majority of the seals in the immediate vicinity of each campsite were killed. By the early summer, the snow on the ice was melting and the ringed seals emerged from their breathing holes to bask on the ice, where they could be hunted. As the time of breakup approached, groups that were camped out on the sea ice would move to locations on the coast, to begin the cycle again.

Variations from this ethnographic sketch were great, but the pattern of exploiting the resources of both the land and the sea was a common theme in most societies. Understanding the origins of that pattern is one of the main goals of Arctic archaeology.

Archaeological Sequence


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Figure 10.2 Diagram summarizing the culture history of the North American Arctic.

The summary given here of the archaeological sequence (also presented schematically in Figure 10.2) draws heavily on the major summaries in Dumond (1987, 2000), Maxwell (1985), and McGhee (1996). The earliest sites in the North American Arctic following the drowning of Beringia are collectively assigned to the “Paleo-Arctic tradition” and date to approximately 11000 to 8500 BP. These sites are found in the unglaciated parts of Alaska and Yukon. Most interpretations emphasize the similarities between the Paleo-Arctic tradition and earlier cultural manifestations of the Asian Upper Paleolithic, suggesting cultural continuity from them. However, on chronological and stylistic grounds it is unclear whether there is also cultural continuity from the Paleo-Arctic to later cultures in the North American Arctic. It is followed in Alaska by the “Northern Archaic tradition,” which is known from 6000 to 4000 BP. Stylistic similarities suggest that it has a very close connection to the other “Archaic” populations found throughout much of North America, so the Northern Archaic probably represents a northward expansion of those populations to occupy the expanding Boreal forests of the interior. Thus the Northern Archaic peoples do not appear to be related culturally or biologically to the later coastal populations of these regions.

(p. 116) (p. 117) The “Arctic Small Tool tradition” is the collective name given to a distinctive group of cultures that date from approximately 4300 to 2700 BP and that are found from Western Alaska all the way to Greenland. The earliest sites are found in Alaska, and the tradition’s later widespread distribution appears to have resulted from one of the most geographically dramatic population expansions in recent human history: the initial colonization of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. On the basis of results from radiocarbon dating, one can project that their expansion from Alaska all the way to northern Greenland was extremely rapid, taking no more than a few centuries.

In Arctic Canada and Greenland, the way of life and technology of the descendants of the Arctic Small Tool tradition had become sufficiently transformed by 2700 BP that archaeologists give them a new name: Dorset culture. Dorset sites are found from Victoria Island in the west to Greenland in the northeast and to Newfoundland in the southeast. Dorset culture persisted until at least 1200 BP, but at around that time Dorset populations appear to have undergone a dramatic decline; by 1000 BP they had completely disappeared from most parts of their Arctic homeland.


Adapting to a Frozen Coastal EnvironmentClick to view larger

Figure 10.3 Thule tradition semisubterranean winter house in the Canadian High Arctic, gridded for excavation (the bowhead whale bones are the remains of the roof framework).

During the centuries when cultures of the Arctic Small Tool tradition and then the Dorset culture flourished in Arctic Canada and Greenland, cultural developments among the Arctic Small Tool tradition descendants living on the Siberian and Alaskan sides of the Bering Strait eventually led to the emergence of what is known as the “Thule tradition,” approximately 2100 BP. The cultures of this tradition developed a new form of economic and social adaptation that centered on open-water hunting of large sea mammals from skin boats, in particular the largest of the Arctic whales, bowheads, which can reach 20 meters in length. Sometime between 1100 and 800 BP (there is currently disagreement as to the precise date), small groups of Thule pioneers appear to have begun moving eastward from Alaska into the Canadian Arctic and Greenland and colonizing that entire region (Figure 10.3).

The exact degree and nature of interaction between the earliest Thule immigrants and the last of the Dorset is not clear. Most or perhaps all of the Dorset likely had disappeared prior to the arrival of the Thule. At any rate, from Alaska to Greenland the diverse Inuit groups who greeted Europeans when the latter eventually entered those regions appear to have been the direct biological and cultural descendants of the Thule people (Park 1993, 2008).

The Development of a Frozen Coast Adaptation

Neither the date nor the precise nature of the earliest adaptation to a frozen coast environment is yet completely understood, in part because the evidence for ancient human use of the sea ice melts away annually. However, it seems probable that the earliest populations inhabiting the North American Arctic had a primarily inland (p. 118) adaptation and took a considerable length of time to develop the knowledge and skills needed to exploit the frozen coastal environment year-round. Five components together make up the complete adaptation to this environment, and their identification in the archaeological record forms the basis of this analysis: (1) inhabiting Arctic coastal areas; (2) hunting small sea mammals; (3) hunting large sea mammals in the open water, especially from boats; (4) hunting seals at their breathing holes; and (5) living out on the sea ice.

Inhabiting Coastal Areas

All known Paleo-Arctic sites would have been located far inland from contemporary coastlines and so represent terrestrial, noncoastal adaptations. The earliest good evidence for the habitation of a frozen coast environment comes from the Arctic Small Tool tradition, whose earliest sites are found in both interior and coastal parts of western and northwestern Alaska. The houses at the interior sites are substantial semisubterranean structures that are interpreted as winter dwellings. They contrast with the light tent rings of coastal sites, which, judging from the limited organic artifactual and faunal data, are interpreted as having been occupied only during the spring or summer. Thus it seems possible that the tradition’s use of the coast was not year-round, but only seasonal (Anderson 1984; Dumond 1987; Giddings 1967).

However, the earliest Arctic Small Tool tradition sites in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland tend all to be located on or near the coast; there is no evidence for (p. 119) winter occupation sites inland. This may be because, in contrast to the situation in western and northern Alaska, in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago the inland areas are not game-rich and there was no incentive to retreat from the coast in the winter. But a winter focus on terrestrial rather than marine species is still evident in the earliest Arctic Small Tool tradition sites in the Eastern Arctic, and current interpretations suggest that these populations survived through the winter largely on stored musk ox meat (Maxwell 1985; McGhee 1996).

Hunting Sea Mammals


Adapting to a Frozen Coastal EnvironmentClick to view larger

Figure 10.4 Arctic material culture from the Canadian Arctic: (a–b) Arctic Small Tool tradition harpoon heads; (c–f) Dorset culture harpoon heads; (g) Thule tradition drag float inflator nozzle; (h–j) Thule tradition harpoon heads; (k) Thule tradition whaling harpoon head; (l) Thule tradition snow knife; (m) fragments of an Arctic Small Tool tradition stone lamp.

The primary benefit of inhabiting coastal areas would have been to take advantage of marine resources, especially small sea mammals. Apart from their bones, archaeologically visible evidence for the hunting of sea mammals comes primarily from the initial appearance of harpoon parts, which are good evidence of open-water hunting, at least from shore or from the floe edge, or as the animals basked at their breathing holes in the late spring and early summer. Harpoon heads are known from the very earliest archaeological sites of the Arctic Small Tool tradition in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, and the faunal remains from some sites include sea mammals. Organic preservation at Arctic Small Tool sites in Alaska is generally poor, so harpoon parts do not survive; but undoubtedly they were in use there too. Harpoon heads of a wide variety of styles (Figure 10.4a–f, h–k), along with other harpoon parts, are extremely common finds from all subsequent cultures inhabiting the frozen coast regions of Arctic North America and Greenland (Dumond 1987; Park and Stenton 1998).

Hunting Sea Mammals from Boats

Hunting sea mammals from boats, especially larger sea mammals such as whales, requires both boats and additional technology beyond harpoons. There are of course the boats themselves, but the simple transference of shore- or floe-edge-based harpooning to a boat presents a problem because the sudden pull on the line of the harpooned and panicking animal might damage or overturn the fragile boat. To solve this problem, the hunter, instead of holding on to the line or attaching it to the boat, attaches it to a separate “drag float” made from an inflated sealskin. Towing the drag float tires the animal and prevents it from escaping the pursuing hunter. Drag floats themselves almost never survive in identifiable form in the archaeological record, but small bone or ivory nozzles sewn into the floats to facilitate inflating them do survive. These drag float inflator nozzles are very distinctive, and their appearance in the archaeological record is thought to mark the advent of open-water hunting of larger sea mammals from boats.

A very few finds from Greenland and elsewhere do make it clear that the peoples of the Arctic Small Tool tradition possessed small boats (Grønnow 1994; Maxwell 1985). However, it is not clear how important boat-based hunting was in their (p. 120) economy. In at least one region, it has been observed that their sites are concentrated in areas where sea ice would have formed relatively early in the autumn and broken up relatively late in the summer, which contrasts with the site distribution of later cultures known to have relied heavily on hunting from boats (McGhee 1979, 1981). This may indicate that pedestrian hunting of seals at the floe edge or basking on the ice was more important than hunting sea mammals from boats, and that during the season when the ocean was free of ice the people lived inland, hunting terrestrial species or fishing. Similarly, there is no evidence that the Dorset people made extensive use of skin boats; in fact, there is reason to believe that (p. 121) pedestrian hunting on the sea ice was even more important for them than for their predecessors of the Arctic Small Tool tradition. It is in the cultures of the Thule tradition that we first see the appearance of drag float inflator nozzles (Figure 10.4g) and abundant faunal remains from large whales, showing that the technology necessary for hunting very large sea mammals had been perfected (Dumond 1987).

Breathing-Hole Sealing

Hunting ringed seals at their breathing holes requires even more complex technology. In many areas, the breathing holes are covered in snow and practically invisible, so dogs were used to locate them by scent. The air hole itself is too small for the hunter to see when a seal has arrived, so the solution to this problem, especially with snow-covered breathing holes, is to use some sort of indicator that informs the hunter when the seal is rising in the hole. Ethnographically, indicators could take the form of a piece of down, fluttering as air was expelled from the breathing hole by the rising seal; or a long and thin bone pin whose bottom end rests on the thin layer of ice that forms on the water’s surface within the breathing hole, while its top end protrudes from the hole. When the seal rose in the breathing hole the ice would shift and then break, causing the pin to move up and down.

Both indicator types alerted the hunter to the arrival of a seal, at which he would plunge his harpoon down into the center of the breathing hole in order to harpoon it (Balikci 1970). Unfortunately, both indicators are unlikely to survive archaeologically in a form that would be recognizable. In the absence of unambiguously diagnostic artifactual evidence for breathing-hole sealing, archaeologists are often forced to draw on more inferential arguments. The time of year in which a seal was killed can be determined from the analysis of thin sections of its teeth. If midwinter-killed seals are found at an archaeological site located distant from areas where there was likely open water at that time of year, such as the floe edge, then the likelihood of open-water hunting techniques being used at that location would have been low and breathing-hole sealing can be inferred.

As noted above, in Alaska the coastal sites of the Arctic Small Tool tradition peoples are presumed to have been occupied during the spring or summer only, so on this basis one concludes they probably did not practice breathing-hole sealing. Early sites of the Arctic Small Tool tradition in the High Arctic that are believed to have been occupied during the winter are located near the coast, but the faunal remains suggest that stored food was the core of the midwinter diet. There is somewhat more reason to infer that the Dorset culture practiced breathing-hole sealing, largely from evidence suggesting that using the sea ice environment was an extremely important activity for them. However, the Dorset appear to have lacked one important part of the technology that was an important feature of breathing-hole sealing as practiced in historic times in areas where the ocean freezes completely and the breathing holes become snow-covered: dogs. If breathing-hole sealing in (p. 122) such regions was important for the Dorset, then they must have had some other means of locating the breathing holes beneath the snow.

It is assumed that the Thule people in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland practiced breathing-hole sealing in midwinter as a supplement to the stored food they had accumulated during the open water season, because some sites located far from the floe edge contain winter-killed seals. However, opinion varies on when and how the Thule developed the technique. Some archaeologists have speculated that they learned it from encounters with the Dorset, but even setting aside the chronological problems with this scenario, it seems improbable.

The one aspect of hunting ringed seals at their breathing holes with which the Thule arriving from Alaska might have been unfamiliar—locating breathing holes beneath snow-covered expanses of ice—was something their descendants would do with dogs. Since the Dorset didn’t have dogs, it is difficult to imagine the Thule learning the technique from them. Instead, it is likely that the Thule simply elaborated on a hunting technique with which they had already become familiar back in Alaska (Park 1993).

Living on the Sea Ice

The most demanding component of adaptation to the frozen coastal environment in the winter is the ability to actually live out on the sea ice for extended periods of time. In addition to the technology required for breathing-hole sealing, two additional items of technology would seem to be necessary: snow houses (igloos), and lamps. Snow houses and campsites on the sea ice obviously do not survive archaeologically, but one diagnostic implement necessary to construct a snow house does: the snow knife. Snow knives were used to cut the blocks of snow, and their appearance in the archaeological record shows that snow houses were being used. Lamps are perhaps the most important item of technology necessary for living in snow houses because they use a fuel resource that was available out on the sea ice—blubber from seals—and allow very fine control of the amount of heat generated.

No snow knives have been identified from Arctic Small Tool tradition sites, and lamps are infrequent finds (Figure 10.4m). One conclusion that can be drawn from these facts is that snow houses either were not used or were used quite rarely. Stone lamps do become more common in the Dorset culture along with the very first snow knives, consistent with at least occasional use of snow houses (Maxwell 1985).

Despite their demonstrated ability to accumulate large quantities of meat and blubber prior to the winter by hunting large sea mammals on the open ocean, the Thule appear to have made extensive use of the sea ice environment. Evidence for this comes from common occurrence in Thule archaeological assemblages of snow knives and lamps (Figure 10.4l). Seal bones from winter and spring-killed seals are also evidence that the Thule made extensive use of the sea ice environment, despite living in their large winter houses on the coast for much or all of the winter (Park 1999).

(p. 123) Conclusion

Possession of such skills by the Thule clearly set the stage for their Inuit descendants in the central part of the Canadian Arctic. These descendants adopted a settlement pattern that involved spending almost the entire winter out on the sea ice. During that time, they relied almost exclusively on breathing-hole sealing. Through increasingly complex technology, these ancestors of the Inuit developed a successful adaptation to frozen coastal regions, reliably exploiting the resources of this complex and dynamic environment.

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