Inuit ancestors crossed Arctic from Alaska in search of iron: book

A handout photo of Cape York meteorite specimens  outside the  Geological Museum in CopenhagenRandy Boswell, Canwest News Service Published: Monday, February 08, 2010
A handout photo of Cape York meteorite specimens outside the Geological Museum in Copenhagen

One of Canada’s top archaeologists argues in a new book that the prehistoric ancestors of this country’s 55,000 Inuit probably migrated rapidly from Alaska clear across the Canadian North in just a few years — not gradually over centuries as traditionally assumed — after they learned about a rich supply of iron from a massive meteorite strike on Greenland’s west coast.

The startling theory, tentatively floated two decades ago by Canadian Museum of Civilization curator emeritus Robert McGhee, has been bolstered by recent research indicating a later and faster migration of the ancient Thule Inuit across North America’s polar frontier than previously believed.

Now, in a just-published volume of essays by some of the world’s leading Arctic archeaologists, Mr. McGhee advances his theory — a 4,000-kilometre beeline quest for iron from Greenland’s famous Cape York meteorite deposit — as the likeliest explanation for the sudden spread of the Thule culture across Canada around 1250 AD.

“Current evidence increasingly suggests that the concept of a relatively slow, environmentally driven Thule Inuit expansion across Arctic Canada, beginning around AD 1000, is no longer viable,” Mr. McGhee writes in The Northern World: AD 900 to 1400, a newly released book he co-edited with two U.S. scholars.

Instead, he argues, new radiocarbon data and other reassessments of Eastern Arctic archeaological sites suggest the Alaska-based Thule undertook an epic voyage by skin boat and dogsled — almost directly from Alaska to Greenland, and within a few summer travelling seasons — about 750 years ago.

Significantly, Thule Inuit archeaological sites near the Cape York deposits are older than others in Canada closer to Alaska — further suggesting an initial dash to the northeast Arctic followed by a more gradual dispersal of population groups throughout present-day Nunavut, Northwest Territories and Yukon.

Mr. McGhee believes the Thule Inuit had learned about the valuable metal at the Cape York meteorite field from contact with Canada’s aboriginal Dorset people, who were already using iron and trading it with Norse sailors from southern Greenland and Iceland.

“It would seem plausible to suggest that metal — meteoric iron from the Cape York meteorites and metal goods traded from the Norse — may have been the magnet that drew ancestral Inuit eastward from Alaska,” Mr. McGhee contends.

He adds that this interpretation of Inuit origins in Canada — as resulting from “commercial motives” and “mercantile exploration” — challenges the prevailing view that ancient native cultures would only migrate to new territories incrementally and in response to environmental pressures, dwindling food supplies or competition from rival peoples.

“We may have been led astray by the deeply rooted archeaological tendency to ascribe different sets of motives and different cultural processes to aboriginal peoples than we apply to Europeans or other societies with a written record of individual accomplishment,” Mr. McGhee concludes. “Future archeaological work may indicate that ancestral Inuit may be more accurately viewed as an entrepreneurial people” driven by the same kinds of economic opportunities that prompted such explorers as Christopher Columbus, John Cabot and Jacques Cartier to sail for the New World centuries later.

Mr. McGhee, who lives near Ottawa, told Canwest News Service on Monday that the Thule Inuit used iron for weapon points but also to carve the antler and bone implements central to their technology and culture.

The apparent target of the Thule Inuit’s suspected race for Arctic resources — reminiscent of the current “rush” for polar oil by Canada and the four other Arctic coastal states — was the series of enormous nickel-iron space rocks that crashed to Earth in northwestern Greenland unknown millennia ago.

The Dorset people — a “paleo-Eskimo” culture that disappeared from the Canadian Arctic when the Thule Inuit arrived — are known from archeaological investigations to have used Cape York meteoric iron for centuries.

But it wasn’t until the 1890s that U.S. Arctic explorer Robert Peary first documented the meteorites and arranged for the transport of several large specimens to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where they are still on display.

Another enormous Cape York meteorite was shipped to Denmark, which governs Greenland, and can be seen today outside a geological museum in Copenhagen.

From The National Post
Original article here