Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Bishops' Sea: My Paddle Flashing Bright

Research can be expensive, and there are scholars known who use their control of the pursestrings to make sure that the field gets on their train. Arctic archaeology is expensive, and the Museum of Civilisation in Ottawa is an important gatekeeper. That's why Robert McGhee's name comes up a lot in citations. He does not seem like the kind of man who would impose his research idees fixe, so I am guilty of some awful rhetorical crime in bringing his name up here. It's just that I'm not entirely comfortable about building vast intellectual superstructures on the negative evidence that kayaks and umiaks do not appear in Arctic archaeological contexts prior to the Thule Tradition, or were "first used about 4000 years ago," per Wikipedia.  (Because what's two thousand years, more or less, to exact science?) When we read about how Vågan in the Lofoten Isles first becomes known to us when a new north-south axis of trade intercepts a much older east-west circumpolar intersection, we are drawn back to humanity's first penetration of the boreal spaces, which must have involved people moving from Siberia to Alaska, right through the future Inuit (Eskimo) cultural interaction sphere 15,000 years ago. You can choose to assume that they did so without boats, but making that assumption on the basis of negative (archaeological) evidence seeems . . . bold.

"Lofoten Svolvear Fährhafen Ausfahrt" by Stahlkocher - first upload in de wikipedia on 18:12, 1. Jul 2004 by Stahlkocher. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

That being said, kayaks far more than umiaks are clearly very challenging technologies, and I would be the first to admit that I chose to lead off with this because I wanted to begin with cute kids singing "Land of the Silver Birch." The dichotomy here is between remarkably complex personal watercraft , whether skin-made kayak or birchbark canoe, and not the larger skin boat which, after all, St. Brendan used to carry sixteen passenters across the Atlantic. (Shyeah right.)

Caones, kayaks, umiaks: boats are the defining theme of a post which might just as well have been entitled "Can Ancient Eskimos Tell Us About the Social Context of Technological Learning? Probably." 

I will also try not to forget about bishops. See? St. Brendan? Of course, my deep skepticism about the reality of St. Brendan is on record here. The argument here is about the social transformation of the high European Atlantic around the turn of the millennium has more to to with the establishment of church-settlements than with largescale population movements. Get rid of the notion that, say, Iona, was uniquely "Celtic Christian," and we can perhaps extend this institution of "mitred abbots," to those parts of the high Atlantic that ended up Nordic rather than Celtic. As Knut Helle so very cautiously points out, the survival of relics of written law in the western Norse communities dating a century before the first Danish laws indicates the primacy of the "English influence" over Scandinavian (that is, Danish) at that early date. Adam of Bremen, it is tolerably clear, is happy to disregard bishops of the northern isles consecrated at York rather than Hamburg-Bremen, and we shouldn't be distracted down the same road by the weird, post-modern liminality of the "Bishop of Sodor."  Yes, Sir Topham Hatt is trying to put one over on us. (1,2,3,4, also so very much 5.)

So that's the arrow from the east (York>Iona>Hebrides>Iceland) that I want to collide with an arrow from the west at Amassalik (Tasiilaq, "The Place of Capelins"), at 65 degrees,43 minutes North on the east coast of Greenland, almost due west of Bjargtangar at the tip of the Westfjords region, settled in the landtaking by the chieftain Helgi Magri Hrólfsson.

Looking west from Bjargtangar. With wild surmise, etc.  Source.
The long line of the Western Continent on the horizon, the heretical suggestion of a "Celtic Atlantic," made in the full knowledge that it is the classic resort of crackpots. Rest easy, though. I'm not trying to get Irish to Boston.

I'm putting Sami in Greenland. 
Now back to the eastwards (that's what the genetics say) arrow, with all due apologies to the Solutrean crackpots proponents.

So here's what you get when you search Google for the "first archaeological evidence for kayaks." Notice that I'm not claiming to have pursued this rigorously. The creators of this site evidently find the strong "Inuit Are Totally the Inventors of Kayak" thesis implausible. For them, "Paleo-Eskimos" had "kayak-like" watercraft, and perhaps dog sleds. [Breaking: this search item is much more interesting.]

Archaeologists going back well before the modern Canadian Museum of Civilisation's modern hegemony have identified "Paleoeskimos" as

[Users of] a technology that involved mainly the working of hard rocks (chert, quartz, quartzite and others), which they transformed into projectile tips and various piercing and cutting tools. The culture was also characterized by the working of organic materials such as ivory, bone and wood, which were transformed into handles for tools and projectiles, harpoon heads, or small tools such as needles. . . . The early Palaeoeskimos also produced objects that may be considered shamanistic, but never on the same scale as during the Dorset period, when this form of expression reached its peak.

Dorsets, meanwhile,

[Used] mainly . . . microlithic tool-making and the use of diverse raw materials transformed by knapping, abrasion and grooving. These tools included triangular points with straight or concave bases, burin-like tool, end scrapers, semi-circular side scrapers, adzes, tanged microblades and different types of points and schist blades. The well-preserved condition of some Dorset sites has also allowed us to see how organic materials (bone, antler, ivory and wood) were worked, as well as various aspects of Dorset figurative representations. These figurines represent human or animal figures, and sometimes a human-animal combination, often decorated with X-ray motifs. Tools made from organic materials include harpoon heads, arrowheads, snow knives, sled runners, snow crampons and many other items. Dorset houses were mostly small tent rings that often included axial features, but there were also semi-subterranean dwellings that were probably winter houses, as well as structures similar to long houses. In general, these last structures were associated with periods when the Dorset families gathered and lived for a time under a single roof.

Our wealth of Dorset sites reflects the way that this cultural horizon spread further and lasted longer than their predecessors. This is all the more striking considering the implications of the comment about "grooving." Dorset bone needles, absolutely vital to Arctic life, are made by painstakingly grooving out their eyeholes, whereas both preceding and following cultures used bow drills. The general implication, supported I suppose by weapon point evidence and an orally recovered late-prehistoric episode in norrthwestern Greenland, is that the Dorset had "lost" the bow and arrow. Though not to the extent that they could not use them on Vikings, if the Vinland sagas are historically accurate.  The late-prehistoric evidence already cited is only an argument from analogy for the Dorset people. It seems pretty clearly true as an actual thing that happened in Northwest Greenland, however. This "loss," or technological regression amongst High Arctic peoples is something that actually happens. 

According to the reconstructed story, on 29 August, 1853, supply ship HMS Phoenix, part of the great effort to find the mislaid Franklin Expedition (cf. every bit of Canadiana ever), encountered a band of 22 Inuit led by one Qitlaq on the southern coast of Devon Island. The existence of a community of  Inuit living far to his north and east was communicated to Qitlaq, At this point, Qitlaq, who had secured his following from amongst the Baffin Island Inuit by promising to lead them to a new and better land, was content with game-rich Devon Island, but the cold winters and high winds led him to act on the information, probably in the spring of 1862. Arriving amongst the Inuhuit that summer with his remaining following, and in the fullness of time, his descendants became the chiefs of the great northern tribe. Or to put it without straining for a Road Warrior reference, it has been calculated that between 14 and 16 Baffin Island Inuit were ancestors of 217 of 603 Inuhuit in 1984. It is reported that they brought with them the bow and arrow, kayak, fish lure and spear, the "snow house" igloo Ithat is, the canonical snowbrick dome in place of the easier and more traditional dugout) and a new drum song, although their fashion of tatooing was rejected with ridicule.*

Inuhuit elders suggest that their ancestors had the kayak and umiak, and used them to hunt the bowhead whale before its local extinction at the hands of the whalers, and this seems quite likely to be true. The very substantial skillset required to form and sew these boats was. . . .

Back up, back up. Eigil Knuth reconstructs the Indepedence I culture on the basis of tools that reminded him of the Arctic Small Tool Tradition (Denbigh Flint Complex horizon in the chart above). This was the first Arctic-adapted technological complex in the Americas, and appeared "rather suddenly," in Peter Lent's phrase, about 2500BC. Less than 500 years later, it had spread to Peary Land, well to the north and west of the Inuhuit. In a sense, Knuth's discoveries had been anticipated by, and reinforced H. P. Steensby's romantic notion of a "Musk Ox Way," in which the first North American Arctic-adapted culture spread rapidly across the High Arctic in pursuit of musk oxen.

The idea that the earliest (Western Hemisphere) Arctic dwellers focussed on land animals rather than the rich harvest of the sea was controversial in 1910, but Knuth's discoveries, which included a preserved winter cache, consisting of the skeletal remains of three full-grown muskoxen, two calves, several hare, foxes and fishes, confirmed this radical thesis. Although Independence I remains do include seal bones, no harpoons have been found; but bows and arrows, compund structures made of muskoxen horn, antlers, and pieces of driftwood, have been.

As Lent observes, the penetration range of these weapons must have been quite short. They were certainly not the ideal muskox-hunting weapons. Muskoxen prefer to protec themselves actively. A good goring saves the calories that would have been wasted in a long chase. Bow-hunting is more usually associated with caribou, but the Independence cultures made little use of caribou, even though they were present on their hunting ranges along with the muskox. On the other hand, there are only a few, problematic dog remains associated with Independence sites. On the one hand, this stripped the Independence peoples of dogsleds and their help in cutting individual muskoxen out of the herd's defensive circle. On the other hand, dogs were a more problematic resource in the High Arctic than is often realised. Most traditional Point Barrow Eskimo families had only two dogs; it took a rich family to support 4, and the classic criticism of these High Eskimos is that they are not so much rich as "slaves to their dogs," because of the heavy demand of feeding them.

Given that they could, and did, hunt muskoxen successfully without dogs, the Independence peoples could afford a much lower-energy winter lifestyle, one that went far beyond simply not feeding their dogs. Knuth associates Independence I and II, and dates them, from "earth tents," consisting of low stone structures, 3.5 meters by 2.5, presumably capped with muskox-hides, and heated by an open fire within a simple stone hearth. Or, to put it another way, the Independence peoples made do without soapstone lamps burning seal oil. Lacking either technique or resource, they made it through the winter by huddlig in their tiny domiciles, conserving the driftwood and muskoxen bones that were their fuel source, eating and drinking the absolute minimum, so as to space out bone-chilling trips outside.

It's not a very cheerful picture, but even Fridjof Nansen  describes the 20kg of muskox suet each of his men carried as a personal reserve on their sled trip across the Greenland interior icecap as "candy." You get used to stuff, I suppose. That fat is the key to the muskox's dominance of its ecological niche, and the persistence of its hunters. As much as five inches thick even at the beginning of spring, the muskox's subcutaneous fat allows it to enter early lactation, and so fulfill the high Artic's dual mandate of replenishment and reproduction. Spring-caught caribou, by contrast, is demoralisingly lean, and an active hunter might have to eat as much as 8lbs of it a day to support metabolic activity, with all the kerotic consequences of burning protein for energy. However, muskoxen fat burns poorly and smokily in lamps, even when it is substituted for seal fat --not that the Independence peoples could have spared it.

So that's it. On the one hand, the Independence peoples lacked a whole range of skills-and-tools that might have made life in the high Arctic more comfortable. On the other, they took muskoxen without dogs, with only bows and arrows,a  very formidable skillset in its own right, and one maintained by a population of less than 200 people in stark isolation for more than two centuries in both of the Independence cultures. In the end, they failed, as isolated populations of under 200 people are likely to do, not helped in any way by the inherent difficulties of living in Peary Land.

Following these pioneering muskox hunters came the various Dorset and Dorset-associated "Paleo-Eskimo" cultures. Like the Inuhuit of high Thule, the Dorsets lacked kayaks and umiaks, although given that they spread around Labrador and Newfoundland, it is pretty hard to believe that they lacked boats. Again like the Inuhuit, the Dorset specialised as seal hunters, taking the fat-rich marine mammals from ice floes with harpoons. Dorset culture was long-lived and robust, but, insofar as we have a clue, their representational art, showing hoodless parkas, is striking. Like the Independence I peoples, Dorsets lived in small houses

I'm going to look back-to-front now. I've already linked to Joel Robert-Lamblin's study of the Amassalik Inuit. Again, the maximal claim can at least be set out here: that the paleo-Eskimo community of this place are the inhabitants of Gunnsbjorn Skerries, the "pirates in keelless skin boats" who haunted the Denmark Straits in the 1400s, the sea-greened pirate people recently converted to Christianity of Adam of Bremen and the source of the kayaks-with-dying inhabitants known to have washed up in Norway and the Outer Isles periodically in the Early Modern. (Presumably, the ones with non-dying inhabitants were paddled into town, where the owners went on to look for work, marry a local girl, and disappear without comment from History.)

Amassalik was a community of 413 people in 1884, living in large houses, which Robert-Lamblin is not the first to intrepret as evidence of a recent past as whalers. a bowhead whale can weigh 75 tons, and that's probably a bit much meat and blubber for a single family. (Remember sides-of-beef clubs, where you'd buy an entire quarter of a cow and put it in your deep freezer? God, I'm old.)

It is believed that the community suffered a serious die-off in the peri-contact period, although its reasons are unknown. What is to the point is the stark demographics the die-off revealed. Every Amassalik hunter supported between 3 and 4 dependents, and the elders of the community made a point of not accepting Christianity if it meant discouraging widows, orphans and the elderly from doing their social duty of committing suicide. The loss of a hunter could, and often did, mean the death of his dependents.

And, of course, "dependents" is a male-centric view of the technical and economic history of Amassalik. The elaborate tailoring of Inuit clothes is well known. What is less often emphasised is the consumption of made textiles in the form of tents, tethers, lines, floats and boat coverings. The large ratio of hunter to dependents at Amassalik wasn't chosen because starvation is fun. We can take it as a minimum ratio of the number of textile workers to hunters needed to pursue whaling. The 413 people at Amassalik is also the observed minimum excess of specialisation-of-labour required to support a whaling community --granted that it does not have to teach young people the exacting skill of muskox hunting, Independence-style.

Now let's take another cut at it, Hanne Sandell (I  hope, because I'm reconstructing notes I didn't take, and it's a female author who is getting the short end of the stick again) discusses the brutal fate of the living orphan among the Inuhuit. Known for his (and one does mean "his," because this is exclusively a discussion of male orphans, and I doubt that tells you anything good about the female ones) for voracious appetite, and expected to show helpfulness, conviviality and agreeableness, the orphan is, to the outside anthropological observer at first almost maliciously abused. One account describes running into an orphan shivering in the inner porch of an Inuhuit house, and this cold and isolated space outside the well-heated inner hall is the common resort of the orphan. Fed on scraps, dependent on borrowed tools, the orphan lives --barely-- on grudging charity.

The other way to put this is that the community is doing its best to keep the orphan alive (a certain measure of unreflected malice aside --these are teenaged boys we are talking about, whom none but teenaged girls will put up with--). It's just short of resources. The balance here is the stark one between the need for more hands and the cost of more stomachs.

But also, and because this seemed like a timely reaction to Current Very Worthy Conversations, they are a demand on instruction time. 

So, why tolerate orphans? Why not just encourage them to commit suicide? Well, because of the floating proletariat. Seal hunting can be done from an ice floe. At most, you need a kayak to get there, and it's possible to do it without a boat at all. Narwhal and walrus hunting are done from kayaks, by individual hunters working together. Larger quantities of blubber and meat area available to the individual Thule and Dorset (presumably) hunter, as well as walrus tusks and narwhale horns for trading.

Bowhead whale hunting is entirely  a different matter.

Nine hunters, and one very big umiak. It might not look like a largescale activity, but the textile work that we see here, not even including the lines and floats in the boat, are the work of 36 or so "dependents." "Wives are waiting/Since break of day."

Now let this boat chance to be under a thrashing tail at the wrong moment. Thirty-six wives, children and parents, "encouraged" to commit suicide?

No way. This is a community with surplus men. That's the only way this works. The negative and disparaging line about being "slaves to their dogs" may be extended. A whaling community of this case is not, whatever the IWC chooses to pretend to believe, a subsistence community. They are producing a surplus to support their whaling practice. Whether that surplus returns to the community in sufficient quantities is another question, and the survival of the Inuhuit is a strong argument that it does not.

So, why whaling? Why this explosive spread of the Thule Culture from Point Barrow about 1200AD all the way to Greenland in perhaps less than two centuries? Robert McGhee talks about a drive for iron, although whether for Norse iron or the iron meteorites of the Thule area remains an open question.

Personally, I think the question should be closed, with an eye to the social risk of whaling. The Thule culture is a whaling culture because it is plugged into a larger exchange economy. Iron tools. whether for woodworking or sewing, make whaling possible on this population basis, but force the community into trade, which requires having Arctic commodities to trade.

So: do small communities lose skills by attrition? Or do they abandon them because the cost of transmission does not meet a cost-effectiveness test against possible hunting strategies? The Qitlaq story neatly wraps up the former story, but the succession of cultures, which is also the succession of hunting strategies, suggests that the latter is at least a possibility.

The radical claim, which I may have buried here, is that, in Greenland at least, Thule Culture is a response to "Norse" influence. Now, I still haven't succeeded in bringing the "Norse" to Greenland --my westward arrow-- but I think that I have chewed the fat enough for now.

*Richard Vaughan, Northwest Greenland: A History (Orono: The University of Maine Press, 1991): 27--8.   



    "The Haughton crater is now considered one of Earth's best Mars analog sites."

  2. This may or may not be of interest:

  3. I found Lameen's ref at

    There's some gilding the lily going on here with the supposed Siberian connection (because Pan-Turanism). A peri-contact assimilation of "caique" to "kayak" in the early whaling days of the 1500s, with an Inuit folk etymology seems more plausible. Or, at least, fits my particular brand of romanticism better.

    Good thing that the historical etymology shows us that the earliest form of "kayak" looks nothing like "caique!"

  4. Question: Inuhuit elders suggest that their ancestors had the kayak and umiak, and used them to hunt the bowhead whale before its local extinction at the hands of the whalers, and this seems quite likely to be true

    Who do you mean here? Is the idea that Qitlaq's lot go *back* to Baffin? Or somewhere else?

  5. The Inuhuit are the northwest Greenlanders (Thule People/Arctic Highlanders, etc). When Qitlaq arrived, they lacked kayaks and umiaks, amongst other things, and Qitlag and his people taught them to make kayaks and umiaks, enabling a kayak-mounted sea mammal hunt for narwhal and walrusses, but not whaling, as the bowhead whale population of northeast Greenland was by this time locally extinct.

    Vaughan supposes that the bowheads had been hunted in the past by the ancestors of the Inuhuit. The implication for technological praxis is that boatmaking skills had then been lost with the whales. Given the value of the walrus/narwhal hunt, it is not obvious that a lack of whales justifies this reduction of technological sophistication. The usual explanation is that it was accidental attrition of the necessary skills, one of the penalties of living in an isolated community, along with vulnerability to disaster, inbreeding, feud, etc. Independence I isn't "primitive," so much as it is small, and so cannot maintain the more complex technological skill set required to live like Eskimos.

    The other possibility is that it was a rational choice. In that case, you have to construe a reason why the narwhal/walrus hunt wasn't valuable enough to the Inuhuit to keep. I'm putting it out there that it's all about trade, mainly for metalware, but likely also southern textiles. (Linen/cotton underwear.)

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