Early Inuit groups from northern Alaska moved into the Eastern North American Arctic (i.e., Canada and Greenland) around 800 years ago (ca. 1200 CE). In roughly a century, some of these early Inuit groups rapidly migrated across what’s now the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Greenland. By roughly the 15th century CE, early Inuit groups lived throughout the Eastern Arctic. The early Inuit are distinct from the Dorset and Pre-Dorset. Although where they lived slightly changed throughout time, these early Inuit represent the direct ancestors of Inuit today.
There are many names that have been used throughout history to describe the early Inuit. Danish archaeologists and anthropologists, as some of the first Western scientists to characterize the archaeological remains of the earliest Inuit, called this group “Thule” (pronounced “too-lee” or “too-lay”). This name comes from a similarly named community in northern Greenland and is still commonly used in published archaeological literature. Thule was originally coined by Ancient Greek geographers to describe the northernmost place in the world. At that time, they were referring to northern Europe. Much later, Danish explorers used this term to refer to a trading post in northwest Greenland. The “Thule Society” is an unrelated movement that emerged in Germany in the 1910s and 1920s. Their members were the foundation for what became the National Socialist (Nazi) party (see Fascism). As a result of these similar names, some archaeologists have suggested that referring to the early Inuit as the “Thule” culture is inappropriate.
Some researchers have used “prehistoric” or “pre-contact” as a synonym for this period of Inuit history. However, both terms prioritize contact with European settlers as a major point in Inuit history. It is arguably inappropriate to only order Indigenous peoples by the instance of this contact.
For these reasons, the term “early Inuit” will be used throughout this page. The above-mentioned terms are used as synonyms for early Inuit in books and articles about this topic. “Early Inuit” generally refers to the period around 1200 to 1500 CE. This is sometimes called “Classic Inuit” (or Classic Thule). Some Inuit knowledge keepers and Elders refer to the earliest Inuit as Taissumanialungmiut (“the people of a very long time ago”).
Early Inuit technology is significantly different from what was seen before. In particular, early Inuit hunting technology was highly sophisticated, with a number of different types of tools used for different tasks.
Common objects found at early Inuit sites, such as harpoon heads and needle cases, are very similar to contemporary examples from Alaska. Furthermore, early Inuit sites in the Eastern Arctic have evidence of ceramic production. Scientific analysis of these ceramic vessels has demonstrated that the raw material originated in Alaska. This is despite the early Inuit sites being hundreds if not thousands of kilometres east. As time went on, material culture from later Inuit sites in the Eastern Arctic took on unique forms from contemporary sites in Alaska. In particular, ceramic vessels stop being produced in favour of soapstone versions. This material is more easily found in the Eastern Arctic. The close similarity of the material culture between sites in Alaska and Canada is partially why archaeologists consider the initial migration to have been rapid.
Most early Inuit cutting-edge tools were made from ground slate. Very few stone tools were made using pressure flaking techniques. Early Inuit groups also frequently used copper and iron. Native copper was gathered from the Coppermine River area and Victoria Island. Iron was sourced from the Cape York strewn field in northwest Greenland. The early Inuit used so much metal that some archaeologists have suggested the search for new sources of metal may have been a major reason for their rapid migration into the Eastern Arctic. While the early Inuit did not smelt their own metal, there is evidence suggesting that they obtained some smelted metal through trade with the Greenlandic Norse (see Norse Voyages).
Early Inuit sites tend to have very good preservation. Objects made from bone, ivory, antler and wood are much better represented in archaeological collections. The early Inuit frequently used bow and arrows, bow drills, dogsleds, larger watercraft (called umiak) and smaller watercraft (called kayak).
Early Inuit groups had different types of houses for both warm and cold seasons. Early Inuit villages were generally larger than Dorset sites. However, they could vary in size depending on the site’s purpose (e.g., Brooman Point Village).
Warm-season dwellings were skin tents. These are called tupiq (tupiit is plural). The archaeological remains of a tupiq are a circular arrangement of the stones used to weight down the edges of the skin tent cover.
Cold-season houses, also called sod or winter houses, are the most well-studied archaeological features of the early Inuit. Early Inuit winter houses changed through time. However, there are a few aspects that are common. Winter houses were partially excavated into the ground. Large stones formed the walls. Driftwood or whale bones were used for the upper frame. An animal skin covering or, more commonly, sod blocks were built over this framework for the roof. The houses tended to be circular or somewhat square in shape. In the middle of the main living space, archaeologists sometimes find vertical stone slabs. This is where a stone lamp (called a qulliq) was kept. Frequently, the rear of the main living space was raised and formed a sleeping platform. Being higher off the ground meant the sleeping platforms were a little warmer than the main living space. Most of these winter houses had long entry passages that had to be crawled through. These narrow entry passages were excavated deeper than the main floor. This would trap the colder, heavier air from the outside and make sure it did not blow into the house. In the earliest examples of these sod houses, there was a small circular room attached to the main living area. This room was where most of the cooking took place.
Early Inuit occasionally lived in snow houses (see Igloo) in the winter. These left little archaeological evidence. Some archaeologists think snow houses became more common in later periods. During this later period, early Inuit frequently used another type of house, called qarmaq (qarmat is plural). Qarmat were used in the autumn and spring. They were dug into the ground like winter sod houses but generally had only a skin covering for a roof, like tupiit.
Depending on the specific time period and region, early Inuit also built other types of structures, such as the qargi (qariyit is plural). This was a sort of ceremonial or gathering building. These were frequently located near other types of Inuit houses. Early Inuit also constructed a variety of different types of Inuksuit (inuksuk is singular). Inuksuit were used for a variety of purposes, such as to mark travel routes or important locations.
Early Inuit tended to be more sedentary than previous groups. However, they still relied on similar animals, such as seals, walrus, fish (e.g., Arctic char), birds (e.g., common eider), muskox and caribou. Also, early Inuit gathered plants.
Early Inuit focused on hunting different animals depending on the season and geographic region. One major aspect of early Inuit subsistence is a summer and fall bowhead whale hunt. These were complex and expensive ventures that required the cooperation of several different families. Some archaeologists think that early Inuit groups had a distinct social hierarchy. This is in part due to the complexity of hunting whales and the importance of the animal for their diet. Whaling continued to be common in Alaska. However, it slowly diminished in importance to Inuit in the Eastern Arctic. The cause for whaling becoming less common is heavily debated. A cooling climate and its impact on whale populations in the Little Ice Age around the 15th century may have been one contributing factor.
In the late summer or early autumn, early Inuit groups generally moved in-land and focused on hunting caribou and birds, and catching fish. Surplus food from these activities was stored in caches. They did less hunting in the winter. During winter, they hunted some seals and walrus. In the spring, it was more common to hunt seals as well as birds. During this season, early Inuit also occasionally fished.
Importance of Collaboration
A lot of earlier researchers based how they interpreted early Inuit archaeological remains off ethnographic records of 19th and early 20th century Inuit society. These ethnographic accounts (see Anthropology) were generally recorded by non-Inuit with a variety of different research goals. Therefore, they offer a biased perspective on how Inuit lived compared to direct Inuit knowledge. Early Inuit material culture, architecture and subsistence were intrinsically tied together with their socio-cultural beliefs and practices. Archaeological and ethnographic evidence can hint at what these practices would have been hundreds of years ago. However, collaboration with Inuit Elders and knowledge keepers is vital to understanding the full spectrum of early Inuit life.