Dorset Culture - Late Paleo-Eskimo Society

Ancient Responses to Climate Change

Qajaa, West Greenland, Deep-Frozen Midden Used between Paleo-Eskimo through 19th Century
Qajaa, a grass-covered deep-frozen midden with remains from Early Paleo-Eskimo cultures to the 19th century CE. Ilulissat Icefjord, West Greenland. Claus Andreasen

The Dorset Culture was one of a handful of Late Paleo-Eskimo groups in the American arctic including Canada and Greenland who responded to a sharp downturn in climate by shifting from the mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle they had practiced for thousands of years to a settled, hunkered-down maritime lifestyle.


  • Early 800-0 BC
  • Middle 0-600 AD
  • Late 600-1000 AD

Dorset emerged from its Early Paleo-Eskimo roots between about 800-500 BC, at the same time deep permafrost and less stable climatic conditions combined to make the American arctic a much more unforgiving place.

Where modified tipis and a highly mobile existence worked for the early Paleo-Eskimo pre-Dorset and Saqqaq groups, that wouldn't work by the colder late period. Instead, those groups adapted, changing their entire lifestyle so much that until recently, scholars thought it was possible they were somebody else: Norton and Dorset. A recent genetic study (Raghavan et al. 2014) has made it clear that Early Paleo-Eskimo groups reconfigured their lifestyles to fit the new reality.

In the process of becoming Dorset, the mobile groups became less mobile, building substantial, insulated semi-subterranean homes on the coastlines. They adopted new technologies, replacing bow and arrow for harpoon, and that combined with the more coastal, less mobile strategy allowed them to concentrate on maritime resources--sea mammals and migrating birds.

Ice-Adapted Technologies

Technologies adopted by the Dorset included hand-drawn sleds with bone runners, cleated shoes called ice creepers, and soapstone vessels to burn oil.

They created large storage pits and conducted winter/spring sealing, maintaining permanent residences on arctic beaches.

There is some evidence that although the Dorset people lived on the beach year round, they moved up and down the coast between winter and summer camps. For most of the year, the Dorset lived in small groups, but during the warm season, they assembled into large communities at locations marked by "longhouse" structures, large rectangular enclosures built from boulders.

Robert McGhee, a long time researcher into Dorset, described them as "ice-adapted" and that sounds about right--the Dorset were sea mammal hunters with a specialized maritime adaptation, including intense exploitation of marine mammals supplemented by hunting trips into the inlands for caribou.

Dorset Hunting Activities

A v-shaped caribou drive (Oxford Bay Drive) on Victoria Island dated to the Dorset period has been documented by Friesen (2008). A drive is a world-wide hunting technique in which people herd animals into an enclosure to kill a large number at once. Oxford Bay was built of two continuous low walls which join together in a tight 'v'-shape, with deep and large hiding places at its vertex.

Friesen argues that the V-shaped drive accommodated people using lances, rather than bows and arrows or atlatls, which were used by later (and earlier) groups, although globally V-shaped drives are not necessarily associated with lances.

Dorset and the Vikings?

During the end of the Dorset period, around 1000 AD, the Norse entered the American arctic, and there is some evidence that eastern Arctic Dorset groups were in contact with them, and may have engaged in trade relations with them. Others, like Robert Park, disagree, arguing that the contact was not with Dorset but perhaps the Thule, and if there was Dorset-Norse contact it was minimal.

It's clear that the Norse met someone; their sagas described meeting people they named "skraelings" in Greenland, Baffin Island and the Canadian coast. Exactly who the skraelings were is still under debate.

In addition, a handful of archaeological sites seem to hold evidence that Dorset and Norse were in contact. L'Anse aux Meadows is a Norse occupation site in Newfoundland province in Canada, where one intact soapstone lamp was found in layers above the Norse occupation. Gulf Hazard-1, a Dorset site on the east shore of Hudson Bay, included a nondescript artifact from sheet copper, but the dates are not consistent, and the site may well have been reused by later Thule groups.

The Belougas site in Ungava, Canada, had a single nondescript smelted copper artifact in a Dorset culture long house; the Goddard site in Maine, and the Nunguvik site on Baffin Island also contain one or two possible Norse artifacts. Park finds none of these compelling, stating that all could be the result of reuse by later Thule people. He argues that the skraelings were Point Revenge or Thule cultures.

Disappearance of Dorset

The same genetic study that identified that Early and Late Paleo-Eskimos as the same population made it clear that the Neo-Eskimo Thule are not related at all, but were rather a second wave of migration. What happened to the Dorset is currently unknown: their sites were reoccupied by Thule whale hunters or abandoned between 800-1000 AD, but how that happened and how quickly is still in question.


This article is a part of the guide to the American Arctic Cultures, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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