Dorset Culture Extends into Labrador, Newfoundland, and Greenland Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Dorset culture appeared in the Canadian high Arctic and northwestern Greenland around 800 b.c.e., spread to Labrador by 700 b.c.e., and eventually crossed the Strait of Belle Isle into Newfoundland, where until 500 c.e. Dorset people may have been the only inhabitants.

Summary of Event

The Paleo-Eskimos, or Old Eskimos, originated in the central and high Arctic regions sometime between 1000 and 500 b.c.e. and gave way to today’s Neo-Eskimos, or Inuits, between 500 and 1000 c.e. In 1924 at Cape Dorset on southwestern Baffin Island, Canadian ethnologist Diamond Jenness discovered a large collection of artifacts from a previously unknown early way of life that he named the Dorset culture. No evidence exists to link the Dorset culture to modern Eskimos, and therefore, knowledge of Dorset life has to be inferred solely from archaeological evidence. All the Paleo-Eskimos may have been related to the ancestors of modern Chukchi living in northeastern Siberia, and scholar Robert McGhee conjectures a migration from Siberia across the north slope of Alaska to the eastern Arctic, Greenland, and Labrador.

McGhee points out that the earliest Paleo-Eskimo settlements between Baffin Island and the Arctic mainland date to 2,500 b.c.e. and, as a consequence of geological uplift, are now at elevations 165 feet (50 meters) above sea level. The progression of pre-Dorset camps occupies beaches 165 to 80 feet (50 to 24 meters) above today’s coastline, and the regular succession of campsites from ridge to ridge parallels steady changes in artifact styles. The evidence suggests that the period of 1000 to 500 b.c.e. was a time of great changes among the Paleo-Eskimos, leading to the emergence of the Early Dorset culture around 500 b.c.e.

New artifacts (flat needles, burins for chiseling bone, chipped-stone blades with side notches) have been found in far southern Dorset camps established around 500 b.c.e. along the coast of Labrador and in Newfoundland, where the so-called Groswater Dorset culture (named for Labrador’s Groswater Bay) occupied the shores around the Gulf of St. Lawrence to take harp seals on the spring ice. New knives and other implements appeared, the bow and arrow gave way to the handheld lance, and temperatures became colder. The fact that the Dorset people built winter houses of earth, boulders, skins, and driftwood implies that they were proficient at hunting sea mammals, from which they extracted oil for fuel and light. The many well-preserved Dorset villages reveal talented workers in jade, flint, and quartz with a keen aesthetic sense. Their tools were remarkably small, necessitating a variety of handles to hold them. The Dorset people—probably the Tunits described later by the Inuits—trapped fish in weirs, and they constructed lines of boulders to form lanes that guided caribou to rivers for easy slaughter.

Some of the changes found in the Dorset culture are hard to explain. Why did the Dorset people not use the bow and arrow? Why did they use gouging tools instead of drills? Why is there no evidence of dogsleds? Why did they not use kayaks? Why are the only human remains found in western Newfoundland in limestone caves? These questions are typical of the mysteries surrounding the Dorset people’s everyday lives.

Significance

Given the relative paucity of historical evidence, it is difficult to judge the impact of the Dorset culture during its own time and that of its successors. McGhee surmises that climatic changes may have influenced both the appearance and the disappearance of the Dorset people. Their migration southward coincided with the onset of colder temperatures, which, instead of deterring them, created the sea ice that facilitated their killing of sea mammals from the ice edge. This change in living conditions probably led, in turn, to innovations in implements for hunting and other uses. Conversely, around 600 c.e., when a warming trend that would last several centuries began, their ice-edge hunting economy would have suffered, a transition perhaps accounting for the complete disappearance of the Late Dorset culture from the Labrador and Newfoundland coasts soon after 500 c.e. At this same time, Dorset settlements expanded in the High Arctic and in northern and southwestern Greenland. On the basis of his investigation of a Late Dorset site at Brooman Point on eastern Bathurst Island, McGhee imaginatively recreated what might have happened when the Inuits, moving east, encountered the Dorset settlement and defeated its dwellers, but he could only speculate. Just when they seemed to be flourishing, building impressive longhouses and creating what McGhee called an “artistic florescence,” they vanished for unascertainable reasons, and their territories were occupied by the Inuit.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harp, Elmer, Jr. “An Archaeological Reconnaissance in the Strait of Belle Isle Area.” American Antiquarian 16 (1951): 203-220. Detailed and scholarly account of the Dorset culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harp, Elmer, Jr. Cultural Affinities of the Newfoundland Dorset Eskimo. Bulletin 200. Hull, Quebec: National Museum of Canada, 1964. Includes history of research and discoveries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ingstad, Helge. Westward to Vinland: The Discovery of Pre-Columbian Norse House-Sites in North America. Translated by Erik J. Friis. New York: Harper & Row, 1969. Puts Dorset culture in context of Norse explorations. Richly illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jenness, Diamond. “A New Eskimo Culture in Hudson Bay.” The Geographical Review 15 (1925): 428-437. The article that announced Jenness’s discovery of the Dorset culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGhee, Robert. Ancient Peoples of the Arctic. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1996. Surveys the Paleo-Eskimos’ history through the end of the Dorset culture. Many illustrations, sixteen pages in color. Thorough and indispensable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGhee, Robert. Canadian Arctic Prehistory. Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1990. Concise, with maps and excellent illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nagy, Murielle. “A Critical Review of the Pre-Dorset/Dorset Transition.” In Threads of Arctic Prehistory: Papers in Honour of William E. Taylor, Jr., edited by David Morrison and Jean-Luc Pilon. Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1994. A concise treatment of the Dorset culture. Good bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Such, Peter. Vanished Peoples: The Archaic Dorset and Beothuk People of Newfoundland. Toronto: NC Press, 1978. Map of Dorset settlement sites and photographs of Dorset artifacts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tuck, James A. Newfoundland and Labrador Prehistory. Ottawa: National Museum of Man, 1976. Informative chapter on Dorset Eskimos with excellent illustrations and a map showing Dorset settlement sites.

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