Size Counts: The Miniature Archaeology of Childhood in Inuit Societies

By Park, Robert W. | Antiquity, June 1998 | Go to article overview
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Size Counts: The Miniature Archaeology of Childhood in Inuit Societies


Park, Robert W., Antiquity


World-wide, the archaeological investigation of childhood seems still to be in its infancy [s/c] but a number of scholars have made encouraging starts in this field of research (e.g. Chamberlain 1997; Lillehammer 1989; Moore & Scott 1997). Their efforts provided the impetus for this study of childhood in the prehistoric cultures of the North American Arctic and Greenland. What makes the archaeological record of these Arctic cultures so appropriate for addressing issues dealing with childhood in past societies is the combination of the richness of the Inuit ethnographic record, the complexity of their material culture, and the marvellous preservation provided so often by permafrost.

Archaeologists have been investigating the archaeology of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland for over 70 years. Their research has shown that this daunting region's first inhabitants, referred to as Palaeo-Eskimos, arrived there from Alaska over 4000 years ago (Maxwell 1985; McGhee 1996). The adaptability and resourcefulness of the Palaeo-Eskimos is documented by their survival throughout Arctic Canada and Greenland for approximately three millennia. The last of the Palaeo-Eskimos belonged to a culture known as Dorset, whose archaeological traces are found from Victoria Island in the west to Greenland in the northeast and to Newfoundland in the southeast [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED].

Approximately 1000 years ago another group of Alaskan migrants arrived in Arctic Canada and Greenland: the people known to archaeologists as the Thule culture. This cultural tradition appears to have developed in northwestern Alaska but it had its origins in earlier cultures that inhabited the islands of the Bering Strait and the Alaskan and Siberian shores of the Chukchi sea. Several of the distinctive cultural characteristics that most people today associate with Inuit first show up archaeologically in the Thule culture and its immediate antecedents, including the use of dog sleds, the extensive use of large and small skin boats and the open-water hunting of large sea mammals. The very rapid expansion of the Thule from Alaska into Arctic Canada and Greenland around AD 1000 was facilitated by their ability to hunt the enormous bowhead whales that summered there.

The exact degree and nature of interaction between the earliest Thule immigrants and the last of the Dorset Palaeo-Eskimos is not clear but all the archaeological evidence points to the Thule having had a very different economic adaptation from that followed by the Dorset, who appear not to have used boats to hunt large sea mammals. That major difference seems to have been one of the reasons for the success of the Thule in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. However it happened, the Dorset culture disappears from the archaeological record (Park 1993). For reasons that undoubtedly were complex, but which included a long-term cooling climate that resulted in a shorter summer open-water period during which bowhead whales could be hunted, the way of life that the Thule brought with them from Alaska did not remain unchanged, instead undergoing local evolution in many parts of the Arctic. But from Alaska to Greenland the diverse Inuit groups who greeted Europeans when the latter eventually entered those regions were the direct biological and cultural descendants of the Thule (e.g. Collins 1937; Dumond 1987; Mathiassen 1927b; McCullough 1989; McGhee 1972; Morrison 1983; Taylor 1979).

Those 70 years of archaeological research into the peoples who inhabited Arctic Canada and Greenland prior to the arrival of Europeans have provided us with an increasingly clear picture of culture history and economy over the millennia, but we are still just beginning to explore questions dealing with more challenging issues such as social organization (e.g. Grief & Savelle 1994; Park 1997; 1998). The task of addressing those more difficult but interesting issues is, however, greatly facilitated by the extraordinarily rich body of ethnographic data that describes the traditional lifeways of the Inuit descendants of the Thule.

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