Based on archaeological evidence, the earliest permanent human habitation in the Eastern North American Arctic began roughly 5,000 years ago. These first humans of the North American Arctic are referred to as the “Palaeo-Inuit.” They likely crossed the Bering Strait from Chukotka (northeastern Siberia). Inuit oral histories call the earliest people of the Arctic “Tuniit”. The Palaeo-Inuit lived for thousands of years until roughly 700 years ago. They are culturally and genetically distinct from early Inuit. Early Inuit are sometimes called “Thule” and are direct ancestors of modern Inuit. However, research on the Palaeo-Inuit and Inuit is ongoing and may change.
Archaeologists separate the Palaeo-Inuit into different traditions or phases. In the Eastern North American Arctic, the earliest Palaeo-Inuit are separated into three different groups. These groups are “Pre-Dorset,” “Independence” and “Saqqaq.” Saqqaq represents the earliest Palaeo-Inuit primarily in southern Greenland (with some later Saqqaq sites in High Arctic Nunavut (see Arctic Archipelago)). Independence largely represents the earliest Palaeo-Inuit in northern Greenland (with some sites in High Arctic Nunavut). Pre-Dorset represents the earliest Palaeo-Inuit throughout the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Quebec and Labrador. All three traditions develop into the Dorset culture around 2,500 years ago. “Dorset” is used by archaeologists across the Eastern North American Arctic to refer to the later Palaeo-Inuit. However, similarities between the groups lead some to argue that these three traditions are different expressions or adaptations of a similar people.
Timing and Geographic Distribution
Pre-Dorset sites are found across thousands of kilometres of the North American Arctic, from Labrador to the Northwest Territories to Ellesmere Island. There are a few Pre-Dorset sites found along the coasts of Hudson Bay. There are also sites in the subarctic Barren Grounds of mainland Northwest Territories and Nunavut. The largest known concentration of sites is in the central Arctic of Nunavut around the Foxe Basin. It is unclear if this known distribution represents past human demographics. The distribution could be a result of “sampling bias.” In this case, “sampling bias” would be a result of where archaeologists have decided to do research.
Most known Pre-Dorset sites are along the coasts. A much smaller number are inland. Given the old age of these sites, the coastlines looked different from how they do today. As the glaciers of the last ice age melted, the land began to lift. This caused many Pre-Dorset sites to be on ancient beach ridges. These beach ridges are potentially dozens of metres above modern sea level. This can help archaeologists understand the relative age (see Dating in Archaeology) of a particular site. Most Pre-Dorset habitations were near the active shoreline. This means sites found at greater elevations are frequently older than those found closer to the modern shoreline. In other words, older Pre-Dorset sites cannot be on lower beach ridges because those ridges would have been underwater. Unfortunately, this does not help with determining the absolute age of a Pre-Dorset site. Absolute age requires scientific techniques, such as radiocarbon dating, to understand exactly how old the site is.
The lack of organic material preservation (i.e., bone, ivory, wood and antler) at most Pre-Dorset sites makes dating the timing and disappearance of these people a major challenge. The main technique to date sites of this age, radiocarbon dating, requires organic materials and does not work with stone. Broadly speaking, the earliest sites tend to be in the west while the latest sites tend to be in the east. The earliest sites are around 5,000 years old. The most recent sites are around 2,500 years old. At this point, the archaeological record changes greatly and the Dorset period starts.
The Pre-Dorset primarily used stone, bone, ivory and wooden tools. Stone, being the hardest of those materials, was used for the cutting or working edge of Pre-Dorset tools. Using a technique called pressure flaking, Pre-Dorset stone tool makers fashioned a variety of implements. These included harpoon endblades, projectile points and lances for hunting. They also made scrapers and burins for food processing. Stone was also used for other various tasks and crafts. These small and sharp stone tools would be attached to a bone, ivory or wood handle. Due to poor organic preservation, archaeologists have found few organic tools or handles compared to the amount of stone tools. This also means that other objects made from organic materials, such as boats, clothing, carved art and many building materials, are very rare at Pre-Dorset sites. However, the few examples of Pre-Dorset carved objects, such as the small maskette found on Devon Island, hint at a complex belief system and skilled carvers and artisans.
Pre-Dorset domestic structures tend to be small but can take different forms. One of the most common types is called “tent rings.” These are several watermelon-sized boulders that broadly form a circular (or “ring”) shape on the ground. These boulders would have secured the edges of Pre-Dorset skin tents (like Inuit tupiit). When the people living there moved on from that site, they brought the lighter tent frame and covering materials with them and left the heavier boulders in place. These boulders show archaeologists the rough outline of the former home. Occasionally, Pre-Dorset tent rings might be square or rectangular. Differently shaped tent rings suggest different styles of tents than that used with circular tent rings. This type of domestic architecture is more easily built and transported compared to other types of houses that might require larger building materials, or those built into the ground (see Thule Winter House).
Pre-Dorset houses might not have a visible perimeter of boulders at all. Some have a few flat stones clustered together forming a hearth or fireplace. Unlike tent rings, which show the exterior boundary of a house, these hearths would likely represent the interior. Occasionally, some tent rings also have visible hearths inside them. Some archaeologists have suggested the hearth-only dwellings might represent different house types than tent rings. The lack of organic preservation makes it hard to understand how these Pre-Dorset houses differed, if they did at all.
Settlement and Subsistence
The Pre-Dorset were “hunter-gatherers,” which means that most of the food they ate derived from wild animals and plants. Hunters-gatherers do not keep domesticated animals or grow fields of crops.
Based on the animal remains and the types of hunting implements found at Pre-Dorset sites, archaeologists think Pre-Dorset relied primarily on marine food resources. One particularly important food source was ringed seal. Unlike the ancestors of the Inuit, there is very little evidence that the Pre-Dorset hunted whales in open water. However, it is possible that they would harvest from a whale that had beached itself on land. Fish and birds may have played an important role in the Pre-Dorset diet, but their remains rarely survive at archaeological sites. Seasonally, Pre-Dorset travelled inland to hunt caribou and muskox. Undoubtedly, the Pre-Dorset would have collected and used plants for a variety of purposes. However, poor organic preservation has impacted the amount of evidence archaeologists can collect.
Unlike the Dorset and Inuit, the Pre-Dorset rarely stored their food in caches. This meant that the Pre-Dorset had to be highly mobile. They had to move their habitation multiple times per year in order to use seasonal fluctuations of resources. This enabled the Pre-Dorset to manage their food sources and not overexploit a single resource. The lack of larger domestic architecture, the high frequency of tent rings, and their small and portable tools suggest a highly mobile lifestyle.
Domestic mobility impacts more than just subsistence. It would have been integrated into a complex system of acquiring raw materials to make tools and material culture, visiting other Pre-Dorset groups, and visiting important socio-cultural locations. Given the lack of physical remains for many of these activities, archaeologists know very little about these aspects of past life. Archaeology alone can only provide a brief picture of these activities. Better insight into these aspects of life require collaboration with other specialists, such as Indigenous knowledge keepers and Elders.