Lost Visions, Forgotten Dreams

Disappearance of Dorset Culture

1) Inuit
2) Northern Indian Lands
3) Dorset Culture
4) Norse Colonies

Dorset culture came to an end at a time when the Dorset people had expanded to a larger area than they had ever occupied, were producing vast numbers of carvings and other works of art, and were building large longhouse structures. How can we explain this apparently rapid and total disappearance of a way of life that had survived for over 3,000 years?

In the centuries around A.D. 1000, the Arctic climate was becoming significantly warmer than it had been since the development of the Dorset culture. Warmer summers would have produced changes in the movements of the animals on which Dorset hunters depended, and there must have been rapid and unexpected shifts in the amount and distribution of sea ice and open water. Disruptions in their usual patterns of hunting and travel must have created hardship, and even distress, for many of the small Dorset communities of the Arctic world.

Human Figure; CMC S95 32587; CD97-320-071
Human figure
Thule Inuit culture
Coronation Gulf

At the same time, and perhaps in response to the warmer climate and greater extent of open water, other peoples began to expand into the country of the Dorset people. Indian groups reclaimed Newfoundland and the forested coasts of Labrador. The Norse established colonies in Greenland and paid occasional visits to the Eastern Arctic. From the west, ancestral Inuit moved from Alaska into the heart of the Dorset homeland.

A changing environment, the advance of Indians, Inuit and Europeans, and perhaps the introduction of diseases to which the isolated Dorset people had no immunity, must have placed enormous stress on the small indigenous population of Arctic Canada. It is tempting to see the increase of artistic activity in the Late Dorset period as reflecting attempts to control an increasingly unpredictable environment through religious and magical means.

Although Indian groups reclaimed Newfoundland and southern Labrador, they were not interested in the tundra areas to the north. The Norse occasionally visited Baffin Island and Labrador, and must have occasionally traded with Dorset people, but they never expanded from their farming colonies on the southwestern coast of Greenland. For the Alaskan Inuit, however, a period of climatic warming and increased open water turned the Eastern Arctic into a tempting region in which to hunt and live.

Whaling Harpoon; CMC S95 32631; CD97-321-015
Whaling harpoon head
Whale bone
Thule Inuit culture
Devon Island

The Inuit brought with them from Alaska the tools and weapons of a sophisticated maritime hunting culture that had developed in the rich waters of the Bering Sea. Capable of hunting animals as large as the bowhead whale, the largest creature in the Arctic seas, the Inuit could support much larger communities than was possible for the Dorset people. These communities were extremely mobile, travelling during the summer in large skin-covered boats ten metres or more in length, and in winter by sleds pulled by teams of well-fed dogs. The Inuit had little trouble expanding rapidly throughout the Arctic world, and as part of this process the Dorset way of life disappeared.

The Dorset people vanish from the archaeological record at some time between about A.D. 1200 and 1500. Their disappearance is best explained in the historical traditions of the Inuit, whose ancestors observed the final generations of the Palaeo-Eskimos:

"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

A video at the end of the exhibit presents historical traditions regarding the Tunit, as told by five Inuit elders from the community of Cape Dorset.

CMC S95 32633

Thule Inuit culture
Baffin Island

Although the Dorset way of life disappeared from the Arctic, it is not certain that the Dorset people became extinct, leaving no trace of their physical or cultural heritage among the Inuit peoples who took their place across much of Arctic North America. If the society of the early Inuit was anything like that of their more recent descendants, then it seems very likely that some members of the Dorset population must have been incorporated as individuals into Inuit communities. Over the generations that the two groups were in contact, there must have been many occasions when a Tunit woman was persuaded, or stolen from her family, to become the wife of an Inuk, and when children were given or taken in adoption. Through such occurrences, the Palaeo-Eskimos must have contributed to the biological heritage of the Inuit population, and many of today's Inuit can probably trace a small proportion of their heredity to Tunit ancestors.

Some elements of Dorset culture may also have survived among the Inuit. In fact, it seems quite possible that the two most distinctive icons of Inuit culture, the inukshuk (boulder cairn) and the domed snowhouse, may have been developed by the Dorset people and passed on to the new inheritors of the Arctic world.

An exhibit of early Inuit artifacts illustrates the striking difference between the technologies and artistic traditions of Inuit and Dorset cultures. Despite this distinctiveness, a number of artifacts show intriguing similarities. One form of harpoon head, an ivory carving of a falcon, and a small ivory disk suggest the continuity of Dorset elements in the culture of the early Inuit.

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