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PLACES MENU GASPÉ PENINSULA EASTERN TOWNSHIPS ABITIBI-TEMISCAMING NUNAVIK QUEBEC CITY REGION (CAP-TOURMENTE AREA) NORTH SHORE LOWER ST.LAWRENCE MONTÉRÉGIE OTTAWA VALLEY INTRODUCTION SAGUENAY-LAKE-SAINT-JEAN
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Nunavik

LANDSCAPE

«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 calm.

Gradually, their tent warms up as seal oil burns in a soapstone lamp.»

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.

 

LEAF BAY AT LOW TIDE
 

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 northern cold.

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.

 

TENT ON THE TUNDRA
 

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.

 

PSEUDO-GRAVER
PSEUDO-GRAVER

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 INUIT HUNTER PHOTO : GEORGE SIMPSON MCTAVISH / LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA,  C-022942
PORTRAIT OF AN INUIT HUNTER
PHOTO : GEORGE SIMPSON MCTAVISH / LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA, C-022942

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.

 

REGION'S PROFILE

GEOGRAPHIC REGION
Canadian Shield

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 populations.

PLANT COVER
Taiga and shrub tundra (in the south) and herbaceous tundra (in the north)

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)

PRESENT CLIMATE
Subarctic

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.

 

RESEARCH

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.

© Exhibit Center, Université de Montréal 2006. All rights reserved. Questions/comments?

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