Redux: Whither the Dorset?


Five years ago, I received a fateful invitation to join the Last Word On Nothing. Since then, almost all of the faces have changed, but its maverick spirit lives on. Much like the culture of the Dorset, featured in my first post in 2011…:


There’s nothing like a lost tribe to pique child-like curiosity. When an isolated band of Brazilian forest people were filmed this year, the world ogled the ochre-painted men with voyeuristic glee. Perhaps we longed for first-hand access to our own ancestor’s lives. One of these lost tribe stories – of the unconfirmed variety – is set in Nunavut, in Arctic Canada.

Inuit have ruled the Eastern Arctic for many generations, but they were not, in fact, the first inhabitants. When Inuit arrived they found another culture living a very different Arctic lifestyle from their own. For the better part of the last five thousand years, the area has been populated by the shy, peace-loving Dorset, who arrived from Siberia shortly after 3000BC. They lacked the Inuit’s specialized gadgets and whaling tradition, concentrating on walrus and seal instead. Rather than building igloos, they traveled with skin tents, which they banked with snow or sod. The Dorset had the run of the Arctic, with all its fresh resources – centuries’ worth of driftwood and animals unused to humans – for more than three thousand years.

When the Inuit arrived from the West, the archeological record shows no further traces of the Dorset or their unique shamanic worldview.  But rumours abound of Dorset survivors who somehow escaped the mysterious fate of their people.

When the Vikings came to the Arctic in the tenth century, they encountered the Dorset, whom they called Skraelings. “They do not know the use of iron, but employ walrus tusks as missiles and sharpened stones in place of knives,” reads the Historia Norvegiae, a 12th century Norse text. “When they are struck with a weapon their wounds turn white and they do not bleed.” As the Norse wore cloth, rather than the more blade-resistant animal skins of the Dorset, they may have been puzzled by these bloodless wounds they inflicted.

Then came whale hunters from Alaska. Ancestral Inuit brought along dog-sleds, umiaks and a tradition of warfare. When they encountered the Dorset people, the Inuit oral history recounts killing them and driving them away from their camps, taking occupation of the land.

An appealing side note to the story brightened the sorry ending: Tradition holds that one solitary band of Dorset survived the onslaught and took up residence well apart from the Inuit to continue their way of life. They were called the Sadlermiut, and they lived on three islands in Northern Hudson Bay: Walrus, Coats and Southampton. Alas, Scottish whalers came ashore in 1901 with a nasty form of dysentery, which spread to the Sadlermiut camps and was believed to have killed every last one in a matter of months.

Geneticist Geoffrey Hayes tackled the question as part of his PhD thesis. “There are a number of interesting examples in the archaeological record where we see a sharp transition,” he says. “The natural assumption is that this represents a new people coming in and overtaking, but the only way to know for sure is to genetically test.”

Hayes fanangled permission from the Inuit Heritage Trust to remove fingernail-sized pieces from the ribs of ancient skeletons. There were four sample groups – ancestral Inuit, the Dorset, the Sadlermiut and modern-day Inuit. His lab looked at a type of DNA passed down only by a persons’ mother (mitochondrial DNA). “North American aboriginal people descend from four of these lineages – A, B, C and D – and most populations share a mix of all four,” says Hayes. “But Inuit are almost all from type A, which suggests their population has always been relatively small.” A mere two percent of Inuit are type D.

Hayes looked at his 20 ancestral Inuit samples, dated to 1,000 years ago from the Western Shores of Hudson Bay. He wasn’t surprised to see the results all come up A. The 2,000 year-old Dorset ribs told a different story. They were all D, completely unrelated to modern-day Inuit. “So it does look like the [Inuit] were a new population coming in – the Dorset didn’t just suddenly figure out how to whale,” says Hayes.

As for the 35 Sadlermiut, the youngest skeletons at between 200 and 400 years old, their DNA revealed a fifty-fifty split between type A and type D.

Graham Rowley, one of the last great Arctic explorers (and a relative of mine), traveled to the area in the 1930s as an archeologist on a British expedition. On Southampton Island, he excavated Sadlermiut sites. He also learned that one family – a woman and her four children – had escaped the death-by-dysentery and lived through the turn of the century. They were adopted by the Inuit who worked at the whaling station.

Rowley’s memoirs describe one day in 1939, when he visited a group of Inuit on Jens Munk Island: five families living in two igloos. A man named Kinga was among them, and Rowley learned Kinga was one of those adopted children, the last of the Sadlermiut. He was described as a little above average height, but in other ways just one of the Inuit family.

Images: Sadlermiut Man on an Inflated Walrus Skin Boat, 1830. F.D. (active 1820’s), after George Francis Lyon (1795-1832). Watercolour, pen and ink. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons). Arctic Cultures, 900-1500 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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9 thoughts on “Redux: Whither the Dorset?

  1. Jessa, will you tell the commenters what you told me about those other guys on your maps? It was extremely interesting.

  2. I realize now I should have included a caption for the map, especially to explain that the Thule (pronounced Too-lee) pictured on the map are, in fact, what I was referring to as Inuit. They are the proto-Inuit, ancestors of the modern Inuit culture, which is recognized to have begun around the Little Ice Age. The Innu are the native people of Arctic Quebec and Labrador, as the Beothuk were of Newfoundland, hence their placement on the map.

  3. The Dorset culture was not wiped out by genocide, nor were they forced out. No, the Dorset culture intermarried into the Thule and the Thule appropriated the Dorset shaman and artwork in the north eastern part of Canada. Further to the west the Inuit have more Thule traits and physical stature, whereas further to the east and to Greenland Inuit share common features and shamanistic and physical implements attributed to the Dorset. I argued this with my professor William Finlayson while he taught at the University of Western Ontario in 1981, where my paper was considered as heresy against the long respect expert T.J. Oleson. But I asked for physical proof of mass murder and genocide, and none of the digs so far show this theory out. No the Dorset culture is still alive and kicking in Eastern Canada.

  4. I think you’re right about some intermarriage. In anthropology, just like in the newspaper business, if it bleeds it leads. There’s some oral history of intermarriage (and where did that 2% D-type mitochondria come from anyway?). But there is also evidence of Dorset groups pushed into very marginal territories, which suggests aggression.

  5. Good stuff. Please be careful however with unsupportable comments like: “peace-loving”. We dont know that and over a 3,000 year span I’m sure there were many variations on war and peace. Those kind of generalizations are meaningless and unhelpful in understanding a complex society.

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Categorized in: History/Philosophy, Jessa