Contact between the Norse Vikings and the Dorset Culture in Arctic Canada
Park, Robert W., Antiquity
One the most dramatic encounters in human history took place when the Norse Vikings came into contact with the native North Americans whom they called 'Skraelings', completing the longitudinal expansion humanity around the earth. Our knowledge of the Norse Vikings comes from their sagas and other historical documents, and from archaeological excavations in Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland. The 'Skraelings' encountered in the New World are known to archaeological research as people belonging to three very distinct cultures, namely Dorset, Thule and Point Revenge occupying parts the eastern Canadian Arctic, Greenland, Labrador and Newfoundland (Figure 1), Dorset and Thule belong to the Eskimo cultural tradition, whereas Point Revenge belongs to the Indian cultural tradition. In a major study based on the geography and chronology of the saga descriptions, and on the archaeological evidence then available, McGhee (1984) concluded that the Norse did have occasional contacts with all three these cultures. He believed that Norse contacts with the Dorset, the subject this paper, were very limited and took place in northern Labrador, one the few regions where Dorset populations were believed to have survived into the Norse era. However Sutherland (2000a & b; 2002) recently re-evaluated the evidence and concluded that the Dorset interacted much more intensively and extensively with the Norse. This new model more widespread Dorset-Norse interaction and acculturation has been accepted by a number researchers (Appelt & Gullov 1999: 66; Gullov 2000: 323-4; McGhee 1996: 191-4; 2000a: 58-9; Odess et al. 2000) and has already been incorporated into the secondary literature (Fagan 2005: 20, 202-3; Pringle 2000; Anon 2000: 18).
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This paper endeavours to integrate all the old and newly published data and argues that neither scenario of Dorset-Norse contact is well supported. Previously published analysis of radiocarbon dates from Dorset sites throughout the Arctic (Park 1993; 2000) strongly suggests that the Dorset had largely died out in the centuries prior to the arrival of the Norse, so there is good reason to suspect that these cultures were never contemporaries anywhere. However, enough doubt remains about the chronology in some regions (e.g. Fitzhugh 1994; Friesen 2004) to warrant a thorough evaluation of all the archaeological evidence supporting contact between these two cultures.
Dorset and Norse
The Dorset were the descendants of people who had migrated eastward from Alaska by 2500 BC. Their sites are known from Victoria Island in the west to Ellesmere Island and Greenland in the north and to Newfoundland in the south-east. While Dorset people lived in the Canadian Arctic, the region around the Bering Strait and northern A1aska witnessed a separate sequence of cultural developments that produced the Thule culture. Approximately 1000 years ago the Thule expanded eastward and eventually occupied almost every part of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland previously inhabited by the Dorset.
At almost the same time, halfway around the world from the Alaskan ancestral homeland of the Dorset and the Thule, the Norse began a westward expansion from Scandinavia that would ultimately bring them too into Canada. There are three crucial dates here. The first is AD 985, conventionally accepted as the date when Erik the Red led the colonisation of Greenland from Iceland. The date of the first voyage from Greenland to Arctic Canada is not known for sure but Leif Erikson is presumed to have made such a voyage around AD 1000. The third date is AD 870, when the Norse are believed to have colonised Iceland. This date is very firmly established due to volcanic ash stratigraphy (Vesteinsson 2000: 164) and other kinds of evidence (e.g. Price & Gestsdottir 2006) and for that reason the AD 870 date seems the most reliable.
The archaeological evidence, most famously the site of L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, shows that soon afterwards the Norse made at least some ventures into North America. …