At the Edge: High Arctic Walrus Hunters during the Little Ice Age

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Arctic hunters and gatherers travelling on foot can only access Greenland by passing through the extreme High Arctic, where the climate and environment is harsh and the faunal resources relatively scarce and concentrated at only a few 'hot spots'. However, groups of Palaeo-Eskimo and Thule culture-origin managed to migrate into north-east Greenland during the last 4500 years where they subsisted for a few generations or even for several centuries. There is a substantial density of settlements belonging to people of the Thule culture in their last period of settlement (c. AD 1400-1850) (Gullov 2004). These native north-east Greenlanders were encountered by European explorers for the first and last time in 1823 (Clavering 1830; Mikkelsen 1922; Gronnow 2010).

Thule sites are often excellently preserved. Large, stratified midden and floor layers are found in the Low Arctic settlements, and have been studied there since the birth of Arctic archaeology (e.g. Mathiassen 1927a & b; Gullov 1997; Woollett et al. 2000). However, research focusing on the High Arctic 'marginal areas', where Thule settlement was sporadic and extremely vulnerable to environmental change, has, until now, been quite limited (e.g. Holtved 1944a & b; McCullough 1989; Schledermann & McCullough 2003; Gronnow & Jensen 2003; Gullov in press).

The GeoArk project was launched in 2003 in order to examine the subsistence strategies of the High Arctic cultures in Greenland and to relate these strategies to Late Holocene environmental changes (Bennike et al. 2008). Up to 2008, fieldwork was concentrated in the Clavering Island/Sabine Island area, which is situated right next to a recurrent ice-free area, the Sirius Water Polynya at 74[degrees]30'N (Figures 1-3). The GeoArk project collected substantial palaeo-environmental evidence, e.g. sediment cores from freshwater lakes, and located and surveyed 116 Palaeo-Eskimo and Thule culture sites in the study area (Kroon et al. 2009; Sorensen et al. 2009).

Most remarkably, the project documented a huge prehistoric site on the small Walrus Island off Sabine Island (Figure 1). The Walrus Island site, introduced in this paper, contains 2094 stone-built structures--mainly meat caches, shelters and tent rings-of the Palaeo-Eskimo cultures as well as the Thule culture. It provides a reflection on the finely tuned balance between humans, resources and climate fluctuations in one of the extreme environments on Earth.

Location: the Sirius Water Polynya

There are only three polynyas (ice-free waters) in north-east Greenland: the North East Water at 81[degrees] N, the Sirius Water at 74[degrees] 30'N, and the Scoresby Sound Water at 70[degrees] 30'N. Walrus Island is situated at the south-western edge of Sirius Water (Figure 2, Site G; Figure 3, upper right). The island is a basaltic outcrop with gravel beach ridges, which provided stable camping grounds with direct access to the large concentration of marine mammals congregating in the polynya during early spring. An analysis of satellite images covering Sirius Water shows that it is a shelf-water polynya, in a transition zone between the fast ice and the pack ice. The stability and size of this polynya is predominantly governed by mechanical force caused by northerly gales, which keep it open along a stretch from Shannon Island in the north to Wollaston Foreland in the south (Pedersen et al. 2010). Historical evidence from the first European landings in north-east Greenland onwards pinpoints this area as the only place in central north-east Greenland where sailing ships could penetrate the pack ice (Mikkelsen 1922). The Sirius Water Polynya thus seems to be a stable feature, which existed even in the periods of considerable cooling during the Little Ice Age (LIA).


The Walrus Island settlement

The size and density of occupation on Walrus Island sets it apart from previously recorded archaeological sites in north-east Greenland (Johnson 1933; Larsen 1934; Glob 1946). …