Ancestors of the Inuit

The Inuit people live in some of the least densely populated areas in the world. To understand how they came to settle here, let’s go on a journey through time to learn more about their ancestors.

5 min read

piknik-ved-sjoen-qasigiannguit-gronland-hgr-113680 1920-foto andrea klaussner
They Came From the West

It’s believed that the first people to settle in North America were the Paleo-Indians, Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers arriving from North Asia. At the time, much of the Earth’s ocean water was stored in glacier ice, and what is known as the Bering Strait today was, back then, actually a land bridge connecting north-eastern Siberia and western Alaska. This allowed mammals to roam freely between the two, and for Paleo-Indians to cross over to Alaska.

Low snowfall in Alaska allowed early populations to exist here, but further migration was impossible due to the Laurentide ice sheet, which covered most of the northern part of North America at the time. It wasn’t until thousands of years later when the ice sheet started to melt away and passages in the ice appeared that these “Beringians” were able to move east and south. There, they would become the ancestors of the indigenous peoples of North and South America. The Inuit would come later, mainly populating the North American Arctic and Greenland.

The Paleo-Inuit and the Pre-Dorset Culture

The lineage of the ancient Beringians however appears to have gone extinct as it cannot be found in modern indigenous lineages. The earliest culture to be found in the North American Arctic is, therefore, that of the Paleo-Inuit people, who inhabited the entire Arctic from Chukotka in present-day Russia, across the far north of North America, and all the way to Greenland.

It is generally agreed that the Paleo-Inuits migrated east from northeast Siberia some 5,500 years ago, eventually inhabiting areas from Alaska all the way to Greenland. They were skilled hunters and a few Paleo-Inuit groups brought dogs with them as hunting partners.

While opinions differ, the Pre-Dorset existed from around 4200 to 2500 years ago, and for the most part lived in what is now the Canadian eastern Arctic. They lived in elliptical shaped skin tents in the summer months, and snow houses or tents banked with snow in the winter. To supplement the food they derived from fishing, they also hunted marine and land mammals with lance, and bow and arrow.

Kayaking, Greenland. Photo Credit: Photo Competition

Kayaking, Greenland. Photo Credit: Photo Competition

Inuits, Greenland

Inuits, Greenland

Qasigiannguit, Greenland. Photo Credit: Andrea Klaussner

Qasigiannguit, Greenland. Photo Credit: Andrea Klaussner

Dog sleds in Qasigiannguit, Greenland. Photo Credit: Andrea Klaussner

Dog sleds in Qasigiannguit, Greenland. Photo Credit: Andrea Klaussner

Sisimiut, Greenland. Photo Credit: Andrea Klaussner

Sisimiut, Greenland. Photo Credit: Andrea Klaussner

The Dorset and the Thule Culture

Named after Cape Dorset in Nunavut where the first evidence of its existence was found, the Dorset culture lasted from approximately 2500 to between 500 and 1000 years ago. They occupied a large area including Baffin Island, much of the eastern Arctic of modern-day Canada, and even northwest Greenland. Based on sophisticated carvings found in these areas, they are thought to have been an artistic group of people. They dispensed with bows and arrows and instead carved local stone into triangular points to make harpoons for hunting seals, walrus and narwals.

Lasting from around 2200 to 400 years ago, the Thule Culture followed the Dorset, and biological, cultural and linguistic evidence clearly shows that they are the direct ancestors of all modern Inuit. Their hunting skills progressed to using dog sleds as well as kayaks and larger skin-covered boats. They also advanced their harpoon technology to be able to hunt giants like the bowhead whale.

Thule dwellings varied from skin tents held up with whale bones to partially underground houses constructed from whale bone and skins. Archaeological remains of ancient Thule structures all across the Arctic include tent circles, food cache sites, kayak stands, hunting blinds, and fox traps.

Present-day Inuit

The Inuit mainly live in smaller communities across the North American Arctic and Greenland. While they have access to modern amenities like television and the Internet, their way of life is still very much tied to the land and sea, and to nomadic hunter-gatherer traditions born from their more-than-five-thousand-year-old history.

Modern Inuit are still intimately in tune with the Arctic climate, and hunting, fishing and trapping remain at the core of Inuit culture. Food and supplies in the Arctic are generally very expensive and perishable — items often in short supply. Food security is a big issue for the Inuit, which is one reason why hunting is so important even in modern times and why every part of the animal is used.

Sharing is an integral part of Inuit culture and one whale will be shared around the entire community, providing members with nutritious food for up to two years. Animal skins are often used for bedding and winter clothes, sinews for binding a sledge together, and horns or antlers to make sculptures. Inuit art is world-renowned for its beauty and elegance, and provides an important source of income for some communities.

The Inuit are a proud people who, along with their great ancestors, have achieved one of the most remarkable human accomplishments of all time – the successful population of the Arctic.