Clip to Evernote    Print this page

Viking Contact with the Indigenous Population in the Eastern Arctic







(click on the images below to enlarge)

During the 10th - 15th centuries, when the Norse lived in Greenland, there were two different indigenous populations living in the eastern Artic: the Dorset Palaeo-Eskimos, who were the descendants of the original inhabitants of the artic American continent, and the Thule Inuit, who are the ancestors of the present-day inhabitants of this area. The Dorset Palaeo-Eskimos were living in northwestern Greenland and Artic Canada when the Norse first arrived. The Thule Inuit immigrated to the area from eastern Alaska at some point between the 11th and the 13th centuries.

The earliest historic reference to a meeting between the Norse and the indigenous population occurs in the Historia Norwegiae, which is a 16th century Icelandic manuscript which appears to have been copied from a now lost mid-12th century original. This briefly describes hostile meetings with natives living beyond Greenland, who used weapons and tools made from stone and walrus ivory - a description that could refer to either the Dorset Palaeo-Eskimos, or the Thule Inuit. The Norse named these people Skrælings (barbarians, or wretches).

The famous description in the Saga of Erik the Red tells of an initially friendly meeting between the Norse and the Skrælings, where trading took place, but disintegrated into chaos when a bellowing bull terrified the Skrælings, who fled only to return some weeks later to give battle.

A few later references tell of encounters with natives in the Nordrsetr - the northern hunting grounds in Greenland where they went in the summer to obtain walrus ivory and skins. A letter written by a Greenlandic priest describes how a hunting party in 1266 went further north than ever before, but that they had seen only one native settlement, probably on the Nuussuaq Penninsula to the north of Disko Bay. As a result of this letter, the church sent an expedition to an area even further north, probably to the Upernavik region. The expedition reported seeing native dwellings in this area, which abounded with seals, whales and bears, which the natives hunted.

The archaeological evidence suggests that at the time of this expedition, both Dorset Palaeo-Eskimos and Thule Inuit were living in the Thule district, although the dominant occupation in this area, as well as the adjacent Ellesmere Island region, was that of the Thule Inuit. 1

The archaeological evidence for contact between the Norse and the indigenous peoples comes from a number of different sites (see map, right).

The archaeological evidence suggests that at the time of this expedition, both Dorset Palaeo-Eskimos and Thule Inuit were living in the Thule district, although the dominant occupation in this area, as well as the adjacent Ellesmere Island region, was that of the Thule Inuit. 1

The archaeological evidence for contact between the Norse and the indigenous peoples comes from a number of different sites (see map, right).

The houses and middens of the Thule Inuit on both sides of Smith Sound have produced a variety of Norse objects. These include: a number of small pieces of metal that have been reworked into blades for Inuit tools or weapons; ship rivets; fragments of chain mail; parts of a bronze cooking vessel; a comb; chess pieces; woollen cloth and wooden parts from a box and a tub. 2

Part of the arm of a medieval Norse balance - the sort used by traders - was found on the west Coast of Ellesmere Island on a Thule Inuit site, and it has been suggested that this indicates an intention to engage in trade. 3

Also of interest is a small wooden carving found on the southern coast of Baffin Island. The figure is typical of Thule Inuit carving, but the clothing is European. 4
(View catalogue entry and photos here.)

Early Inuit sites in western Greenland also contain many Norse objects, but here it is impossible to tell if they were obtained by trade, or were looted from the abandoned houses after the Norse settlement ended. However, oral traditions of the Greenlandic Inuit describe trade between Norse and Inuit, and suggest that there was a more complex relationship between the two societies. 5