«The silence of the tundra, broken
only by the rustle of footsteps in the moss, is abruptly
transformed by a sudden snowstorm. The travellers have little
choice but to put up a shelter and wait for the weather to
Gradually, their tent warms up as seal oil burns in a
THE PEOPLING OF NUNAVIK
Nunavik, which covers nearly a third of Quebec, has been home to
Arctic populations for close to five millennia. The Inuit people,
coming to this land from Siberia via Alaska, developed a capacity
to adapt and invented ingenious ways of surviving in a demanding
environment. The human occupation of Nunavik can be divided into
two main chronological periods: the Paleoeskimo period (from 4 000
to 1 000 years before the present) and the Neo-Eskimo period (from
1 300 years before the present to the historic period). In Quebec,
the Paleoeskimos were represented by the Pre-Dorset and Dorset populations.
About 3 000 years after the Paleoeskimos arrived in the territory,
a new group, the Neo-Eskimos, began to spread out from Alaska and
move rapidly towards the east. The Thule Eskimos arrived in Nunavik
with this migration.
In the Paleoeskimo period, small family bands travelled eastward
as they hunted game. Within less than four centuries, they reached
Nunavik and explored the eastern shores of Hudson Bay and the coast
of Labrador, setting up their camps near the water as they went.
These people manufactured small tools and weapon points out of stone
to hunt caribou and seal. They used needles made of bone or ivory
to sew animal pelts into clothing to protect themselves from the
THE STORY BEGINS WITH THE PRE-DORSETS
Pre-Dorset groups were the first to settle in Nunavik. They produced
finely flaked stone tools, such as small stemmed projectile points
used as arrow heads or harpoon heads, as well as little blades that
could be inserted into a slot made at the end of a bone spear.
Pre-Dorset families lived in tents of animal skins over an oval
or circular structure measuring 4 to 5 metres in diameter. The interior
of these shelters was laid out around a central activity area that
was often marked off by lines of rock slabs or boulders. The largest
Pre-Dorset sites found so far are concentrated in the region of Baffin
Island and Hudson Strait, where these people could hunt caribou,
seal and walrus. The Pre-Dorset populations of Nunavik also caught
fish, birds and land mammals like musk-oxen. They used boats to travel
over the icy seas.
THE DORSETS: A MORE SEDENTARY POPULATION
The Dorset period was marked by improvements in the techniques used
for hunting on ice. While caribou hunting seems to have been important
for the Pre-Dorset people, the Dorsets focussed more on seal hunting.
Dorset populations lived in circular tents as well as in large rectangular
structures partially below ground level, with interiors laid out
around a central domestic area. These homes could shelter several
families. Dorset tools included small triangular points, toggling
harpoon heads, snow knives, bone or ivory needles, scrapers, blades
and knives. The presence of snow knives and steatite lamps implies
that the Dorsets knew how to build igloos and could heat them by
burning seal oil. Wooden masks, miniature figures of humans and animals
carved out of ivory and pictures of faces scratched into rocky outcroppings
all testify to the Dorsets’ artistic tradition.
The Dorsets probably spent spring and summer on the coast, hunting
seals and walruses at the limits of the ice. Towards the end of summer,
they may have gathered in places where they could hunt for caribou
or where fish were plentiful. With the arrival of fall, they moved
into their semi-dugout houses, but when the ice became thick enough,
they would live in snow shelters, hunting seals at breathing holes.
THE THULE PEOPLE: ANCESTORS OF THE INUIT
About 1 000 years ago, the climate in Nunavik became warmer for
a few centuries. The ice fields diminished and big whales came in
large numbers to the polar seas. By the 14th century, these changes
opened the way for a new Inuit migration. These Neo-Eskimos had learned
how to hunt whales in large sealskin boats, called umiaks, along
the north shore of Alaska. From there, they moved eastward across
the Arctic towards Greenland. Thule, the name by which they are known
today, comes from a north Greenland colony where traces of their
presence were first identified. The Thules’ skill in whale
hunting made them more prosperous than the Dorset populations.
PORTRAIT OF AN
PHOTO : GEORGE SIMPSON MCTAVISH / LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA,
The Thules were very ingenious. They used bows and arrows, as well
as an array of spears and javelins, which they threw with atlatls,
or spear-throwers. They hunted with harpoons and the many kinds of
floats needed for hunting marine mammals. The Thules also made tools
like knives and points out of ground and polished slate and even
wore “sunglasses” to protect themselves from snow blindness
caused by the reflection of the sun on snow. They had two types of
boats, the kayak and the umiak. The latter, which could be over 10
metres in length, enabled them to travel over the water in groups
large enough to hunt whales. On land and on ice, they used sleds
pulled by dogs.
Nunavik is a vast territory covering a 550000-km2 area north of
the 55th parallel. Bordered by Hudson Bay to the west, Ungava Bay
to the east and Hudson Strait and the Labrador Sea to the north,
Nunavik consists of a great plateau covered with low rolling hills
and countless rivers and lakes. The plateau is basically formed of
Precambrian rocks dating from over 500 million years ago. To the
southeast, this territory is delimited by the Labrador border and
the Torngat Mountains, which boast the highest peaks in Quebec.
At the end of the last ice age, the retreating continental ice sheet
(inlandsis) separated in two, leaving a gap between the glaciers
on the Labrador-Ungava Plateau and those on Hudson Bay. As the former
withdrew eastward and the latter retreated towards the northeast,
the land between them, newly freed of ice, was gradually invaded
by the Tryell Sea. The last remnants of the continental ice sheet
are thought to have persisted in central Nunavik until about 6 500
years ago. Today, Nunavik is inhabited by Inuit, Cree and Naskapi
Taiga and shrub tundra (in the south) and herbaceous tundra (in the
Shrubby vegetation (dwarf willow and dwarf birch), lichen-spruce
stands and several hundred species of plants (blueberry bushes, black
crowberry, mosses and lichens such as cup moss, or caribou moss)
Mean temperatures for the month of August vary between 6.3∞ C
at Kangirsuk and 10.6∞ C at Kuujjuarapik.
Mean winter temperatures vary between –25∞ C and –40∞ C.
Numerous descriptions of the Inuit people were recorded in ship’s
logs by the explorers who sought a westward passage through the Canadian
Arctic in the course of the 19th century. The first true anthropological
expedition to the Arctic was led by Therkel Mathiassen and Knud Rasmussen
in the early 1920s and is known as the Fifth Thule Expedition (1921-1924).
At the end of the 1950s, William Taylor undertook archaeological
research at Payne Lake on the west shore of Ungava Bay and on the
southeast shore of Southampton Island in Hudson Bay. His most important
work, accomplished on Mansel Island and at Salluit, led to the publication
of his doctoral dissertation in 1968. On the basis of the data he
gathered, Taylor worked out a tentative cultural chronology. His
work established the antiquity of the Pre-Dorset culture and gave
clearer definition to the origin of the Dorset culture.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, research was focussed on collecting
archaeological data, and the excavation of certain sites made it
possible to identify the various prehistoric cultures more clearly.
This work was carried out by organizations such as the Centre d’Études
nordiques at Université Laval and the Archaeological Survey
of Canada. In the second half of the 1970s, a multidisciplinary research
program, known as Tuvaaluk, was established at the Université du
Quebec à Montreal, and a research project on the Hudson Bay
coast was undertaken by Inuit archaeologist Daniel Weetaluktuk.
Center, Université de Montréal 2006. All rights reserved. Questions/comments?