The Dorset culture (also called the Dorset Tradition) was a Paleo-Eskimo culture (500 BCE–1500 CE) that preceded the Inuit culture in Arctic North America. It is named after Cape Dorset in Nunavut, Canada where the first evidence of its existence was found. The culture has been defined as having four phases due to the distinct differences in the technologies relating to hunting and tool making. Artifacts include distinctive triangular end-blades, soapstone lamps, and burins.
The Dorset were first identified as a separate culture in 1925. Archaeology has been critical to adding to knowledge about them because the Dorset were essentially extinct by 1500 due to difficulties in adapting to the Medieval Warm Period. The Thule, who began migrating east from Alaska in the 1000s, began the displacement of the Dorset.
Inuit legends recount them driving away people they called the Tuniit (singular Tuniq) or Sivullirmiut (First Inhabitants). According to legend, the First Inhabitants were "giants", people who were taller and stronger than the Inuit, but who were easily scared off. Scholars now believe the Dorset and the later Thule people were the peoples encountered by the Norse who visited the area. The Norse called these indigenous peoples skræling.
In 1925 anthropologist Diamond Jenness received some odd artifacts from Cape Dorset, Nunavut. As they were quite different from those of the Inuit, he speculated that they were indicative of an ancient, preceding culture. Jenness named the culture Dorset after the location of the find. These artifacts showed a consistent and distinct cultural pattern that included sophisticated art distinct from that of the Inuit. For example, the carvings featured uniquely large hairstyles for women, and figures of both sexes wearing hoodless parkas with large, tall collars. Much research since then has revealed many details of the Dorset people and their culture.
The origins of the Dorset people are not well understood. They may have developed from the previous cultures of Pre-Dorset, Saqqaq or (less likely) Independence I. There are, however, problems with this theory: these earlier cultures had bow and arrow technology which the Dorsets lacked. Possibly due to a shift from terrestrial to aquatic hunting, the bow and arrow became lost to the Dorset. Another piece of technology that is missing from the Dorset are drills: there are no drill holes in Dorset artifacts. Instead, the Dorset gouged lenticular holes. For example, bone needles are common in Dorset sites, but they have long and narrow holes that have been painstakingly carved or gouged. Both the Pre-Dorset and Thule (Inuit) had drills.
Historical and cultural periods
Dorset culture and history is divided into four periods: the Early (which began around 500 BCE), Middle, Late (starting around CE 800), and Terminal (CE 1000 to 1500) phases. The Terminal phase was already in progress when the Thule entered the Canadian Arctic, migrating east from Alaska. It is probably closely related to the onset of the Medieval Warm Period, which started to warm the Arctic considerably around AD 800. With the warmer climates, the sea ice became less predictable and was isolated from the High Arctic.
The Dorset were highly adapted to living in a very cold climate, and much of their food came from hunting sea mammals through holes in the ice. The massive decline in sea-ice which the Medieval Warm Period produced would have had a devastating impact upon their way of life. They seem to have had great difficulty adapting to this change. They apparently followed the ice north. During the Late and Terminal periods, they concentrated their settlements in the High Arctic. As mentioned below, an isolated remnant of the Dorset may have survived on a few small Hudson Bay islands until 1902. Most of the evidence demonstrates that by 1500 they had essentially disappeared.
Scholars credit the Dorset with a faultless understanding of their local environment (which they may have shared with the newly arrived Inuit). But, their adaptation was different from that of the whaling-based Thule Inuit. Specifically, the Dorset did little hunting of land animals, such as polar bears and caribou. They lacked bow and arrow technology. Instead, they relied upon sea mammals (mostly seal), which they hunted from holes in the ice. Their clothing was well adapted to extremely cold weather.
Technological diagnostics of the Dorset culture include small, triangular end-blades; soapstone; and burins. The end-blades were hafted onto harpoon heads. They primarily used the harpoons to hunt seal, but also hunted larger sea mammals such as walrus and narwhals. They used soapstone to make lamps, which when filled with seal oil, would heat the Dorset dwellings during the cold and dark months. The distinctive burins were a special type of stone flake with a chisel-like edge. They were probably used for engraving, or for carving wood or bone. The burins were also used by Pre-Dorset groups; they usually had a distinctive mitten shape.
The Dorset were highly skilled at making refined miniature carvings, and striking masks. Both indicate an active shamanistic tradition. The Dorset culture was remarkably homogeneous across the Canadian Arctic, but there were some important variations which have been noted in both Greenland and Newfoundland/Labrador regions.
Interaction with the Inuit
There appears to be no genetic connection between the Dorset and the Thule who replaced them, indicating a lack of intermarriage. Archaeological, cultural and legendary evidence supports some cultural Thule-Dorset interaction. For instance, the Thule engaged in seal-hole hunting, which was not known from their culture in Alaska. The Dorset extensively used this hunting technique, likely a form of technology that they could teach the Thule.
Further, the speed and direction of the Thule migration may imply Dorset–Thule connections. The Thule made an almost direct migration from Alaska, across the continent through foreign lands all the way to Greenland, in the span of a few centuries. For the Thule to have accomplished this, they likely required directions and assistance, which the Dorset may have provided. The details of Thule/Dorset interactions are mostly unknown and generate questions: did the Thule carry new diseases, how much direct conflict was there between the two peoples, and what was the nature of their social interactions?
Much can be inferred from Inuit legends, archaeology and the genetic studies mentioned above. The Thule were a strong people with a history of warfare, and they had better weapons than the Dorset. The process of "driving off" the Dorset, which is recounted in their legends, would likely have involved direct conflict. As there was almost no interbreeding between them, social interactions did not appear to go much beyond trading. Although archaeological evidence indicates that the Dorset were in steep decline when the Thule arrived, conflicts with the Inuit would have hastened that decline.
The Sadlermiut were a people living in near isolation mainly on and around Coats Island, Walrus Island, and Southampton Island in Hudson Bay up until 1902-1903. Encounters with Europeans and exposure to infectious disease caused the deaths of the last people. Scholars believe they were the last remnants of the Dorset culture, as they had a culture and dialect distinct from the mainland Inuit. Although mitochondrial DNA research has shown that the Sadlermiut were directly related to the Tuniit, a subsequent genetic analysis demonstrates no genetic link between the Sadlermiut and the Dorset.
Dorset in culture
- Canadian poet Al Purdy wrote a poem entitled "Lament for the Dorsets" which starts "Animal bones and some mossy tent rings... all that remains of Dorset giants, who drove the Vikings back to their longships..." This poem laments the loss of their culture and describes them and their end.
- Michael Fortescue, Steven Jacobson & Lawrence Kaplan (1994): Comparative Eskimo Dictionary; with Aleut Cognates (Alaska Native Language Center Research Paper 9); ISBN 1-55500-051-7
- Robert McGhee (2005): The Last Imaginary Place: A Human History of the Arctic World; ISBN 0-19-518368-1
- Robert McGhee (2001): Ancient People of the Arctic
- Plummet, Patrick and Serge Lebel (1997) "Dorset Tip Fluting: A Second 'American' Invention", Arctic Anthropology 34(2):132-162
- Renouf, M.A.P. (1999) "Prehistory of Newfoundland Hunter-Gatherers: Extinctions or Adaptations?", World Archaeology 30(3):403-420
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