Paleo-Eskimos - Colonizing Arctic America

Adaptation to Climate Change in the American Arctic

Modern-day Canadian Inuit and their environment
Modern-day Canadian Inuit and their environment. Carsten Egevang

Paleo-Eskimos (occasionally spelled Paleoeskimos) are what archaeologists call the people of the last great human colonization of our planet. About 14,000 years ago, a wave of people left the Bering Strait region and crossed into the arctic regions of North America. Archaeological correlates of that wave are probably the Nenana complex, with a tool kit quite similar to Siberian Dyuktai Neolithic cultures.

Based on a genetic study published in 2014 (Raghavan et al.) all Paleo-Eskimo groups are descended from that initial push.

Early Paleo-Eskimo 3000 BC-800 BC

There are several different cultural groups--defined by variations in their material culture and where they lived--which are today grouped together as Paleo-Eskimo, who lived as hunter-gatherers in different parts of the arctic regions between Alaska and Greenland. Those groups include Denbigh, Pre-Dorset, Independence I and Saqqaq.

Archaeological evidence suggests they were highly mobile hunter-gatherers who lived in small bands and camped and hunted in the inlands during the summer and autumn, but spent the rest of the year near the coast, probably on or near sea ice. They used sophisticated bows and arrows, with flaked stone tips, not much different from Paleoindians in the warmer parts of North America.

Their residences were primarily arctic variations on a tipi, a tent of animal skin used by many Plains indian groups.

Lifestyles of Early Paleo-Eskimo

Depending on the season, early Paleo-Eskimo groups hunted terrestrial animals such as caribou and musk ox, as well as sea mammals like seals, fish, arctic fox, arctic hare, polar bear, and migratory bird species like geese, ducks and gulls.

The communities led an extremely diverse lifestyle.

For example, in Greenland Saqqaq people camped at the heads of fjords during the summer and autumn and spent the rest of the year on the coast, like most other early Paleo-Eskimos, but in some summers and falls, apparently, sea mammals could be reliably hunted, in which case they'd move to the coasts early.

Subsistence data from Saqqaq sites in Greenland are particularly rich, because frozen middens (essentially garbage dumps) have been found with terrific preservation. For example, Qeqertasussuk in western Greenland has a huge frozen midden, from which have been recovered mounds of peat, animal bones, hearth rock, preserved tools, personal equipment and hunting gear. Qequertassusuk also has well-preserved later Dorset and Thule culture deposits, which helps archaeologists examine subsistence changes over time.

Late Paleo-Eskimo, 900 BC-1200 AD

Beginning about 800-900 BC, however, subsistence methods changed across the American arctic, a shift that may well have been driven by climate change. Between 2800-2500 cal BP (or 800-500 BC), a sharp cold trend occurred, and Paleo-Eskimo people adapted quickly, developing a more sedentary lifestyle based primarily on marine mammals, what scholars call Norton and Dorset.

There's considerable debate about exactly how the later cultures developed--but scholars largely agree that the new living technologies became widespread--the spread of ideas not necessarily people. One possible scenario was recently presented by Raghavan et al.

  • Denbigh eventually became Choris and Norton by 900 BC
  • Pre-Dorset, Independence I, Saqqaq became Dorset around 800 BC
  • Norton became Ipiutak 200 AD

Transitioning to Late Paleo-Eskimo

In the Foxe Basin near Baffin Bay, the transition period lasted between about 850-400 BC. People stopped using bows, arrows and bow drills and switched to harpoons with very large heads, hand-drawn sleds, and snow knives. Instead of living in movable tipis, the Late Paleo-Eskimos built far more insulated, substantial semi-subterranean houses (interestingly, not that different from Norwegian arctic Gressbakken Houses).

And, most of those substantial houses were situated along the coastal areas, to facilitate year-round sea mammal exploitation.

About 1,000 AD, the Norse began making incursions into Paleo-Eskimo territory, in Greenland, Baffin Island and Newfoundland, and, according to the Viking sagas and archaeological evidence, there were contacts between the two cultures. It is still much debated whether that contact was with Dorset or a related group or even later Neo-Eskimo Thule tradition; and specifically how much trade was practiced between the two cultures.

The Paleo-Eskimo period ended 1150-1350 AD, with appearance of Thule, or Neo-Eskimo; but that's another story.


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

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