Guide to the American Arctic Culture

The Arctic Culture of North America

Map of the Arctic Circle
Map of the Arctic Circle. PCL Map Collection

The Arctic culture region of North America, also referred to as the Far North, includes Greenland,  Arctic Canada, Alaska and the Alaskan coast westward to the Aleutian Islands. Among the major rivers we can include the Yukon and the Kuskokwim in Alaska.

The limit between the Arctic and Subarctic coincides roughly with the transitional vegetation zone between tundra and the southern boreal forest, also known as taiga.

Environmental Characteristics of the Arctic

In the Arctic, the only vegetation possible is tundra (low shrubs, grasses and lichens) with patches of trees such as birches and dwarf willows. The ground is usually free from ice only few months a year, during a brief summer of three months-long duration.

In the Arctic, the summers are, ironically, the most dangerous periods, since the melting of the ice makes moving around more dangerous. In the past, it was during this period of production inactivity that people used to get together and organize social events, such as festivities and marriages.

Contrary to what it can seem, the Arctic offers a huge and rich variety of resources. Aquatic resources are available, since almost all the regions in the Arctic are close to the sea, where salmon, whitefish and sea mammals, such as whales, seals, and walrus are abundant. Freshwater lakes and swamps also provide humans with migratory birds, fish, and insects.

Few species of land mammals are also available such as caribou, musk ox, bears, arctic foxes, and wolves. This wide array of resources was exploited by humans in prehistory as it is in the present.

Arctic Prehistory

Paleoindian Tradition

The first groups of humans migrated into the Arctic from Siberia through the Bering Strait region round 14,000 years ago.

These Paleoindian groups developed an early tradition that is referred to as Nenana complex and date between 10,000 and 9,000 BC.

Until 8000 BC, Alaska and other Arctic regions shared the stone tools tradition of the Dyuktai tradition of Siberia, with its characteristic microblades. These were widespread from Siberia to Alaska and southward along the Pacific Coast.

Paleo-Arctic Tradition

By 8000 BC the so-called Paleo-Arctic Tradition developed and flourished until ca 5000 BC. This term refers to a variety of specialized hunter-gatherer traditions, where people exploited both marine and land resources with specialized stone tools. Sites with evidence of this tradition are: Gallegher Flint Station site, Anangula, and Chaluka, in Alaska and Aleutian Islands.


Ocean Bay and Kodiak Traditions

By 4000 BC the Pacific coast of Alaska reached its modern levels and therefore became more reliable for human exploitation. The so-called Ocean Bay and Kodiak traditions flourished between 4000 and 1000 BC. People in this period heavily relied on sea mammal hunting and typical toolkits include: stone spear heads, basalt tools, bone artifacts, and harpoons. An important site of this period that also show later evidence of Inuit culture is Kachemak, on the Kachemak Bay of Southern Alaska.

Aleutian and Arctic Small Tool Traditions

Later cultural developments in the Arctic include the Aleutian (2500-1800 BC) and the Arctic Small Tool (2000-800 BC) traditions, which are believed to correspond to the Ancestral Aleuts and Eskimos.

Dorset and Norton Cultures

Later Paleoeskimo phases developed between 1000-500 BC and ca AD 1000, and are known as Dorset (500 BC- AD 1000) and Norton (1000 BC- AD 800) cultures.


Old Bering Sea Culture

Another recognizable development in Arctic Prehistory corresponds to the Old Bering Sea culture, between 200 BC and AD 500. This culture introduced pottery and stone tools influenced by Siberia. Kayaks, ivory barbed harpoons, needles and other sophisticated implements are also part of their toolkits. The Old Bering Sea culture, although still poorly understood, seems to be the predecessor of the Thule culture.

Thule Culture

The Thule culture, which include late prehistoric Eskimo groups such as Inuit, Inupiat and Yupiak, seems to have entered Canada and displaced Dorset people around AD 1200. The Thule culture centered on the Baffin Bay and spread far west until the North Pacific coast between AD 1200 and 1400.

European Contact

The Thule Inuit first encountered Europeans around AD 1000, when Norsemen settled in Greenland and began trading with the Inuit for furs and ivory. Inuit, on the other hand, were interested on Europeans for their iron tools. However, it was not until mid 19th century that the Arctic became populated by non indigenous people and the Inuit culture more dependent on external resources introduced by the Europeans.


This glossary entry is a part of the guide to the North American Archaeology and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Fagan, Brian, 1991, Ancient North America. The Archaeology of a Continent. Thames and Hudson, London & New York.

Gibbon, Guy, ed, 1998, Archaeology of Prehistoric Native America. An Encyclopedia. Garland Publishing, Inc, New York