Nadlok and the Origin of the Copper Inuit


Since the 1960s it has become apparent that the Copper Inuit, like all Inuit, originated in coastal Thule culture. Yet earlier ethnographers suggested their more immediate ancestry was partly in the interior. Nadlok is the only known excavated site showing the transition from Thule to Copper Inuit culture. Coastal sites dating to this period are unknown and it has been suggested that Coronation Gulf suffered a nearly complete population collapse 300-400 years ago at the end of the Thule period. Reasons are uncertain but likely relate to deteriorating climatic conditions of the Little Ice Age. Certainly, the persistence of multi-year ice would have had very serious effects on the local seal population, upon which local Thule people depended. There may have been a population shift from the coast to more secure inland areas where caribou hunting predominated. The rare seal bones at Nadlok suggest that they were not isolated from the sea, but continued to make seasonal forays. But only with nineteenth century warming conditions did the coastal focus return, leading directly to the development of historic Copper Inuit culture.

Picture 1 A caribou herd in the distance.

At a time of climatic stress, Nadlok was established where the Bathurst caribou herd crosses the Burnside River on its July migration to the southern forest north of Great Slave Lake. It became important because people drew upon its huge seasonal reservoir of food; drying and freezing a great deal of meat and fat for winter. They occupied Nadlok over a period of several hundred years between about A.D. 1450 and 1750. After living in autumn tent camps in the early period, occupation became more permanent, with the building of both semi-subterranean winter houses and paved antler-walled autumn huts.

By the early twentieth century the Nadlok area was little used by Copper Inuit. Yet an echo of Nadlok occupation is found in the traditional Yellowknife Indian name for the Burnside River on which the site is located. They call it the Annatessey, or "River of Strangers".

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