Thule Tradition Archaeology in the High Canadian Arctic

Living the High, Frozen Life

Fraser River near Lillooet
Fraser River near Lillooet. Uli Harder

Coping with winter is something humans have practiced for a very long time. In the temperate zones of the world, some two to four months are given over to snow, sleet, and ice in varying proportions. But in the High Arctic regions of our planet, the winters stretch to eight or more months.

Thule Inuit

The Inuit peoples of the Canadian High Arctic have lived in the region for at least a thousand years.

Their ancestors, called by archaeologists the Thule (pronounced Too-lee) tradition, migrated east from the Bering Strait and entered the Canadian arctic. Recent revisions in the dates of sites such as Nelson River suggest that this migration occurred about 800 years ago. According to those dates, the Thule spread throughout Alaska, Canada and Greenland within a century or two.

The Thule were primarily seal, walrus, and whale hunters, and they lived on the coastal margins of the High Arctic, along Baffin Bay and on the islands between the mainland masses of Canada and Greenland. Day-to-day subsistence was based on marine mammal exploitation, that of seal and walrus, but Thule hunters also pursued large baleen whales. They had an elaborate and beautiful way with harpoon heads, carved pendants, and toys of stone, bone, ivory, and antler. Winter houses were small (10 x 8 feet or so) oval or sub-rectangular sod huts excavated partly into the ground and built of whale bone.

An entryway was built into the hut, dug lower than the interior floors, to act as a cold sink. The floors and sleeping platforms of the houses were paved with flagstones; the platforms then covered with mats and furs. Light and heat were derived from whale oil lamps. Dog sleds and kayaks were the main transportation of the Thule tradition peoples.

Thule Winter Communities

Thule people were semi-sedentary but seasonally quite highly mobile. During the late spring, summer, and fall, Thule communities were out away from the winter bases securing seasonally available resources such as caribou, seals, fish and walrus. Surpluses from these forays were transported and cached at the winter bases.

The size of the winter communities is somewhat under debate. While sites such as Naujan and others on Resolute Bay seem to have had lots of houses, some researchers have argued that they really represent rebuilding episodes, with only about 50 people living through the winter together at the same time. Larger villages and multi-roomed houses are believed by some scholars to represent the requirements of whaling. These villages began to disperse when the Thule began to broaden their resource base.

The Thule tradition didn't so much end as become transformed. Around 500 years ago, the climate chilled throughout the northwest, and the Inuit peoples abandoned the islands of the High Arctic, moved to inland waterways and developed inland living strategies such as fishing with nets and communal hunting. This stage is known to archaeologists as the Inuvialuit culture; and the people maintained this new lifestyle until the Europeans invaded at the beginning of the 20th century.

Are the Thule "Skraelings"?

The Skraelings is what the Norse (Viking) settlers of Canada and Greenland called the indigenous people they met during their travels. Some evidence supports the Thule as being the culture associated with those events; other evidence suggests Dorset or Point Revenge. It is possible that the Norse met all three at different times.

Dating the Thule Tradition

A 2008 article in American Antiquity argued that the Thule migration--when the ancestors of the Inuit left the Bering Strait region and began their migration into the Canadian High Arctic--occurred about 1200 AD, two hundred years later than previously believed.

The research from T. Max Friesen and Charles Arnold reported new radiocarbon dates from two crucial sites on the Thule spread: Nelson River and the Washout site.

Both of those sites are located on the Amundsen Gulf of the Beaufort Sea, just east of Alaska and hence the 'jumping off point' for the migration. The new dates were warranted, say Friesen and Arnold, because many recently excavated Thule sites (including Co-op, Tiktalik, Pearce Point, Cache Point) had returned radiocarbon dates later than the original dates of Nelson River and Washout. Each of these sites contained harpoon heads of the same styles seen at Nelson River and Washout. Finally, the dates falling within 2 sigmas at Nelson River and Washout covered a fairly broad range of time, Nelson River between AD 720 and 1270; and Washout between AD 350 and 1260.

The dates, taken on terrestrial bone or sedge matting from each of the sites, range between AD 1030-1300 for Nelson River, and AD 1300-1430 for Washout. These dates align with those from Pearce Point and Co-op and Tiktalik and Cache Point, making the researchers believe that the Thule migration did take place later, and more rapidly, than previously believed.

So Who Were the Skraelings?

If the dates prove correct, the redating of the Thule emigration into eastern Canada is 200 years and more too late for this society to represent Leif Ericson's Skraelings, who must have been  Dorset culture folks, who lived in the Canadian eastern Arctic and Greenland between 800 BC and AD 1300.

Thule Archaeological Sites

  • Canada: Qijurittuq (Quebec), Keatley Creek (British Columbia), Naujan (Northwest Territories), Nelson River (Northwest Territories)
  • USA: Cape Espenberg (Alaska)
  • Greenland: Sandhavn, Walrus Island


This article is a part of the guide to the Arctic Culture, and the Dictionary of Archaeology. See Robert Park's excellent pages on the Thule Tradition for additional information.

Anderson J. 2011. From Alaska to Greenland: A comparison of the Arctic Small Tool and Thule Traditions. Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology 12(1):6-15.

Betts MW, and Friesen TM. 2006. Declining foraging returns from an inexhaustible resource? Abundance indices and beluga whaling in the western Canadian Arctic. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 25(1):59-81. doi: 10.1016/j.jaa.2005.11.001

Darwent J, Mason O, Hoffecker J, and Darwent C. 2013. 1,000 Years of House Change at Cape Espenberg, Alaska: A Case Study in Horizontal Stratigraphy. American Antiquity 78(3):433-455. doi: 10.7183/0002-7316.78.3.433

Dawson P, Levy R, Gardner D, and Walls M. 2007. Simulating the behaviour of light inside Arctic dwellings: implications for assessing the role of vision in task performance. World Archaeology 39(1):17-35. doi: 10.1080/00438240601136397

Friesen TM, and Arnold CD. 2008. The Timing of the Thule Migration: New Dates from the Western Canadian Arctic. American Antiquity 73(3):527-538.

Golding KA, Simpson IA, Schofield JE, and Edwards KJ. 2011. Norse-Inuit interaction and landscape change in southern Greenland? A geochronological, Pedological, and Palynological investigation. Geoarchaeology 26(3):315-345. doi: 10.1002/gea.20351

Golding KA, Simpson IA, Schofield JE, and McMullen JA. 2009. Geoarchaeological investigations at Sandhavn, south Greenland. Antiquity 83(320). Gallery Project

Grønnow B, Gulløv HC, Jakobsen BH, Gotfredsen AB, Kauffmann LH, Kroon A, Pedersen JBT, and Sørensen M. 2011. At the edge: High Arctic Walrus hunters during the Little Ice Age. Antiquity 85(329):909-929.

Lemieux A-M, Bhiry N, and Desrosiers PM. 2011. The geoarchaeology and traditional knowledge of winter sod houses in eastern Hudson Bay, Canadian Low Arctic. Geoarchaeology 26(4):479-500. 10.1002/gea.20365

Morin J. 2010. Ritual architecture in prehistoric complex hunter-gatherer communities: A potential example from Keatley Creek, on the Canadian plateau. American Antiquity 75(3):599-625.

Park RW. 2008. Contact between the Norse Vikings and the Dorset culture in Arctic Canada. Antiquity 82(315):189–198.

Pasda K, and Odgaard U. 2011. Nothing is wasted: The ideal "nothing is wasted" and divergence in past and present among caribou hunters in Greenland. Quaternary International 238(1-2):35-43. 10.1016/j.quaint.2010.12.036