Saturday, November 21, 2015

Christ Stops at Kingcome: Yarns of the Plantation

A Viking Yarn
Kingcome Inlet is, as has been mentioned before, a mainland region opposite Port McNeill, the site of my senior high school. The site of the Dzawada'enuxw First Nation reserve, it has sent its children across the strait to be educated in Alert Bay (First Nations) and Port McNeill (White).

So I could say something about how poisonously racialist policies work on the ground, but I won't. The point here is that Kingcome, to which I have never been, is a bog-standard "early" mission site, where a small number of early missionaries, along with some provincial technocrats, established a cattle-raising, pastoral society on land previously used to grow camus bulb to eak out the returns of the sea. The ranching days didn't last, and they're now trying to restore the estuarine meadows to their "pristine" state, but Kingcome may, or may not be a model for understanding Gardar. (More dramatically, Erik the Red might, indeed, be an Eskimo.)

"Christ stops" at Eboli, the end of the rail from Naples. The action in Christ Stops at Eboli takes place beyond Eboli, in the hills of the Basilicata of Lucania, where an internally-exiled Carlo Levi ministers to poor, ignorant peasants, far beyond the reach of modern civilisation. More dramatically, I always think of a Venetian mariner, who once told me about sailing out of Naples at night, and seeing the light of fires above the forest belt, high in the mountains, and supposing to himself that those primitive hill folk lived a life unaltered since the days before Christ. 

Either he'd read Levi, or this was a common cliche. Probably the latter. As it  happens, if those primitives emigrated to B.C., they would live in nice houses, just a little outside Prince George, so that they could afford big back yards, screened from the road by a woodbreak, so that Mama won't be ashamed of the big backhoe discretely parked away on its semi-trailer bed, waiting for Papa to hitch it up again and head out into the woods on another two-week stint of building and maintaining roads and bridges for logging operations. 

I don't know what that says about anything, except that Levi was pedallling patronising cliches. It is a shout-out to my sister-in-law, although her papa had a place to put his machine, and didn't have to take it home with him, which meant that he could live in the city, back in the day before he retired to follow his grandchildren to Campbell River. And as I love my sister-in-law and my nephews and neices, so I am not inclined to believe that Christ really stopped at Eboli. (There's an entire section of Corrupting Sea about Christ not stopping at Eboli, so it's not like I'm being original, here.)

Specifically, the question is whether he stopped at Nanook:

If you're thinking "Nanook of the North," you can be forgiven. Nanook is one of a number of archaeological sites near the old Hudson's Bay post of Kimminut, on the south (Hudson's Bay) coast of Baffin Island. and archaeologists were directed to it by local Inuit. 

Well known, easy to reach, available to archaeologists --a perfect place to look for Norse. Nor were the scientific archaeologists from the south by any means the first.

A Dorset drum recovered from Bylot Island, now at the Canadian Museum of Civilisation.  Source.
To Eastern Arctic Inuit, the Tuniit were  an enigma and a legend.. Who could resist a piece like this, recovered from an ancient site? Surely these ancients, giants, dwarves and shamans, had a connection with the spirit and the land that could be recovered by beating their screaming drums. Driven off the land by the ancestors of the Inuit, the shades of the Tuniit lingered in the mossy tent rings of their people. 

Or, they're Irish. Crazy as Farley Mowat was, the bits of The Wayfarers that wanders along the coasts of Newfoundland touches real, if neglected history --Nineteenth Century history, to be sure, when the Beothuks "disappeared" by becoming ordinary Newfies, but neglected history, all the same. The point is, giants, Irish, if everyone else can be romantic about the Tuniit, so can I.

So, if the Nanook site is right on the main passage to Hudson's Bay and has watched fur trading vessels sail by since 1668, is our attention being drawn south, into the heart of the continent? Do all roads lead to Cahokia? Finds of smelted metal in villages along the east coast of Hudson's Bay typologically identified as "Dorset," imply a bucket-brigade trade that reaches the mouth of the great northern rivers; and if Cahokia can attract bearers of Mexican comosological/urban planning ideas (which I am sure it did, no matter how uncomfortable this makes American archaeologists), then some kind of Norse influence could reach, it too.
Kimmirut and its vicinity, from Port Churchill to Tassiilaq/Amassalik It looks like Red Bay is off the map to the south. Oops.

Big deal, of course. A thousand years ago, two thousand, ten thousand, you could trace a line of communication from one end of the Earth to the other: Australia is linked to New Guinea (home of the world's clove industry, remember!) via Caper York and a direct trade link from Arnhem Land; the Americas are linked to Eurasia via the Bering Strait; the Polynesian world might be truly isolated, but it strikes me as far more likely that long-distance Pacific voyaging ceased at the same time that the Manila-Acapulco trade began for a reason. Someone in Cahokia had talked to someone who had talked to. . . The line is there, but it's for a game of Telephone. Artefacts (those little bits of yarn and iron and bronze) are another matter, but they do not carry ideas. Even one or two prestigious, exotic strangers are unlikely to be bearers of transformative influences.  Even a small army of Viking explorers might be surrounded and exterminated by Skraelings, and be forced to quickly carve an account on a 200lb runestone in the event that a Swedish-American farmer happened to dig it up, their story would be told. As unlikely a story as the Kensington Runestone is, note that Wikipedia is at pains to suggest a route for those explorers: up the Nelson or Hayes River from Hudson Bay to Lake Winnpieg, down the Red River of the North, over the Traverse Gap, down the Minnesota to the Mississippi. Apart from the obligatory Internet-era "seems legit!" I'd add that I guess we're assuming trusty Native guides, who clearly know the way from Hudson's bay to Cahokia. (At least, once you're on the Mississippi, you can hardly miss it.)

Taking it a bit closer to Earth, the thought that Nanook might have been a Norse outpost was long-ago inspired by the impressive solidity of the masonry ruins there. Inuit built in stone, but were not terribly ambitious about it. (Rather like North Atlantic islanders, who had difficulties with roofs, in particular.) Norse were at least up for decent headroom and solid buttresses, although a great deal of the difficulty lay with the mortar, and if mortar has been found at Nanook, I would think that we'd have heard about it. Moving on from possibly(?) ethnoentric generalisations, the function of these solid structures was suggested at a fairly early date, as blinds for taking eider ducks and polar bear traps. Either at least suggests lifeways not usually associated with the Dorset.

From there, the search for elusive Norse had not proceeded very far, until, in 2007, Patricia Sutherland announced that the spun yarn found here and at a related site was Norse work. This, combined with some interesting wood pieces and more evidence of local metallurgy, was enough for Sutherland to announce progress from Norse "contact" to "Norse outpost." 

Then, in 2012,  Sutherland was dismissed from her position at the Museum of Civilisation in Ottawa. After two years of hearing it spun as a case of our recent government "muzzling" scientists, as it was wont to do, the Museum retaliated with a news release clarifying that the dismissal, and the related revocation of McGhee's professor emeritus status, was due to findings of harassment of academic staff. 

Awkward, as the kids say. Sutherland is currently seeking access to her work from the Museum, with her supporters, at least, not reluctant to talk in terms of the "truth" being "suppressed." The actual, painful truth is that we're probably at a dead end. Smelted metal, twists of yarn, and carved wood all occur in many eastern Arctic contexts, and given that the human population of the eastern Arctic probably did not exceed 5000 at any point in prehistory, we've probably got all the sites we're going to get. 

If we are interested in Norse contact --and who isn't?-- things get tricky. Dating is critical. After all, if the question is metal in a dig, well, Eastern Arctic inhabitants had plenty of European contact after, oh, say, 1520, and it is not as though we have a 25 year-increment pottery dating scheme.  Our vague chronology is currently based on transistions in stoneworking industries and art, and runs to about five cultural transitions over the 5000 year human history of the High Arctic --not very good for distinguishing a dig of 1420 from one of 1520, even if the last dated transition, from Dorset to Thule, is . . . Well, I think there's a bit of an issue here, which I am going to come to in a moment. Carbon dating, which requires careful, scientific work, not always on offer, which is why carbon dating series are so controversial amongst Arctic archaeologists. If I catch the drift correctly, those with prior commitments to theoretical models are convinced of the value of particular series, others cling equaly fiercely to other series, while yet others point to suspiciously large error bars.

This seems like something that might happen, and is not likely to change. The total human population of the eastern Arctic was probably below 5000 for most of history. There are just not that many sites, and an equal paucity of organic material "from" the sites. The optimist is therefore a great deal more casual (the pessimist would say) about the association of a given, testable piece, and the actual site than they should be. At this point, our hopes of finding organic material unambiguously associated with a known site, or an unknown site, are slim --Unless there is systematic exploration of formerly important sites that are hard (and expensive) to reach.

That doesn't mean that these things are unimportant. The article from which I take this illustration, in a festschrift for Hans Gullov, is entitled "When Norse Met Inuit." That's a thing that happened. We don't know the precise details, but notice that this top-down view of the entire northern polar region is geographically expansive, we are talking about tens of thousands of people, no more, in an ecosystem which, probably more than any other, puts a stark emphasis on local knowledge, learning and teaching. A small number of people, open to interaction as few others, scattered widely, but equally capable of very long migrations indeed. More on that in a moment; suffice it to say that we have actually documented Twentieth instances of Arctic populations using indigenous technologies to migrate over a thousand kilometers on news of a favourable conditions elsewhere in search of suitable niches. The great distances here, the vast sweep of influences and zones, are not necessarily entirely fanciful.
Happened twice, in fact, since twin allures of "Vinland" and the Christian Mission called the Danes back to Greenland in  1728. Note that although I mischievously linked to "Onward, Christian Soldiers," there, I could just as easily link to doorstop-weight Nineteenth Century, multi-volume histories of the evangelisation of Greenland. We know a lot about the second Scandinavian encounter with Greenland. It's not entirely crazy to take what we know as a model for what we don't.

By the way, while I wouldn't recommend careful attention to Nineteenth Century missionaries writing on the evangelisation of Greenland's icy shores on my worst enemies, I did pick up the observation that the Moravian missions only really became successes when the Moravians abandoned efforts to live off the country and instead resumed their traditional livilihood of  spinning and weaving. Nowadays, the flourishing Greenland sheep farming industry exports its wool, but things were different in the 1700s, apparently. And that is without any evidence of "scientific" sheep farming, which apparently did not begin until the end of the century.

We even have a picture of a particular migration, the one that emptied Eastern Greenland. Danish colonial authorities, mildly obsessed with Tasiilaq as the survival of the Eastern Settlement, but unable to get there across the ice sheet or up the coast, anxiously monitored Eastern Greenlanders as they arrived in the West, presumably for evidence of relict Papish superstition, but also for insights about this mysterious location.

The story about why Eastern Greenlanders abandoned their coastal sites for the west turns out to be about weather and access to trading posts, mostly, but there is some odd and enigmatic evidence about cultural change. Actual East Greenlanders, and obviously the missionaries who received them, had very strong views about the beneficial effects of the Christian mission. Skeptical as we moderns might be about this, stories of family violence, shamanic bullying, and inexplicable, petty murders suggest that living in small-scale societies without established hierarchies is not without its downsides. Preaching was, along with trade goods, an important "pull" factor in emptying out East Greenland --excepting Tasiilaq.

Set aside the mystery of "Erik the Red's Land." Discard the possiblity that Icelanders had early and somewhat regular contact with East Greenlanders even before Erik the Red's settlement, as the offshore ice was likely a problem. The first thing we know is that in-migration due to pull factors emptied an entire coast of East Arctic subsistence hunters within a century-and-a-half of the first Danish missions on the opposite coast of Greenland. That's a very interesting point.

The second thing we know is that the Saga story of the settlement of Greenland is unlikely. I haven't made much of a go of it, but the naive version is impossible. A thousand colonists simply cannot arrive in east Greenland, a 1600km voyage from Iceland, in mid-summer, when the ice barrier breaks, and then clear the difficult scrublands, establish houses and byries, stock the latter with enough hay to support enough the animals that would feed the inhabitants of the former, in a single summer. It is too little time for the work, and far too much shipping. It is also 1/30th of the entire likely population of Iceland (one-seventh in some maximalist claims), and, in turn, one in forty-nine of all inhabitants of Norway! (It is anyway remarkable that medieval Iceland had, at the minimal 30,000 population claim, one seventh the population of medieval Norway.)

It's also dumb. Where we have accounts, and archaeological evidence, the colonisation of remote places in Macaronesia was by first leaving juvenile livestock on trading voyages, and then returning a few years later to round them up. This is cheap, low-effort, and makes minimal claims on shipping tonnage. It would have worked in East Greenland, where sheep will flourish out of doors for strings of seasons at a time, although not in the long run, and not in Newfoundland, where they die off during the winter, or in New England, where the locals eat them --a neat explanation of the phases of settlement of the Atlantic archipelagos.

Now, as to that process of settling, we have a good, epi-historical example to work from. Polynesian settlement of the archipelagos of the Pacific took place across vast distances, used low-intensity technologies, and was not a bit dependent on "scientific navigation." Arguments may be had, but it seems as though their locations were known from Roman times, and it is not at isue that the Canaries were known centuries before successful colonisation took place. Reaching them, like reaching the far flung islands of Polynesia, was fair-weather sailing. Yet these islands were not settled until the late 1300s at the earliest.

Why not? The obvious answer is that "plantation" took place within the context of the larger Pacific and Atlantic economies. Polynesian economic lifeways were already boat-mobile, so plantation was just a matter of a longer-distance sail than usual. (Conceivably, there was the incentive of a long-distance prestige trade with east Asia, I will try to suggest provocatiely, as opposed to crack-pottedly.)

The plantation of the Atlantic, on the other hand, took place within the Atlantic economy. Remember, while there were land-hungry peasants aplenty in Europe who might have been happy to move to Iceland/Greenland/the Azores, they were land-hungry because they had not the capital to buy land, and if they had not the capital to buy land, they had not the capital to buy ships, and the livestock and tools to carry in them.

Is the Tenth Century too early for a capitalised push into the far wastes of the Atlantic? I would point to fish, deep anthropogenic soils, and the difficulty of pushing the dates of assorted Norse kingdoms in the Scottish Outer Isles as evidence that it is, indeed, a century too early. You want Norse on the ascendant? Don't point to fragmentary early evidence. Point to actual Norse, on the actual rampage: Canute, Harald Hardrada, Sigurd the Crusader. Yes, yes, we want there to be earlier Vikings. Yes, there probably were. But they didn't get to Macaronesia. At least, not to stay.

So the story of the Faeroes, Greenland (and Iceland), as we have it, is that there existed people with the capital to settle them --and, out of all the options available to them, they chose, in order, the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland. As far as the Faroes go, archaeology shows that this story is not true.  The Faroes were inhabited by 700. What happened was that the descendants of the already-established-by-the-Viking-Age population of northern-island-farmer-fisher-sealers eventually agreed to promulgate a story about how their ancestors arrived in Norse times. In Iceland, it is probably true that settlement took place within the Norse timeframe. The revelation, with the discovery of blood types, that their ancestors were probably Irish rather than Norse has been met with a stony silence and much subsequent pointing in the direction of Auld the Deep-Minded (proving that the Irish blood got there in slaves and wives), and subsequently to mtDNA findings that discover a great many Norwegian male ancestors --which does not, to my mind, prove as much as the Icelanders would like to think it does.

No parenthensis, no digressions: Iceland was almost certainly settled when the tradition says it was settled, but not by the people the tradition says settled it. Either they were Norwegians, but not wealthy aristocrats fleeing Harald Fairhair; or they were papars --Irish.

As to why the north and not Macaronesia, well, there's one advantage that the northern islands have over the southern, at least for lightly-capitalised hunters who cannot bring enough salt to cure cod or herring. Northern seas are more productive seas due to the higher oxygen content, so the sealing is better. Small boats, and lightly-equipped men are more than enough to take seals and walrusses at their hauling-out points, at least given iron broadheads for their longbows, so that they do not have to fight walrus bulls hand-to-hand. Even a rendering cauldron is unnecessary, at least, so I would think, if you bring enough lime to line a cooking pit.  Walrus ivory, walrus hide, rendered blubber for cooking, heating and lighting. The rookeries of the Faroes were in sustainable yield production into modern times, it seems.

Finally, we have Greenland, where there were certainly inhabitants before the Norse arrived. They just did not live like the Norse. And we have "Nanook."

Hmm. Hmm. . . . 

So. There's a lot left to be said about the prehistory of the indigenous Eastern Arctic, but we have a timeline. As climactic conditions got colder in the middle of the last millennium BC, existing Paleo-Eskimos, by a heroic effort of innovation, entered into the "Dorset tradition." "Highly socially constrained," as one archaeologist said, and another quotes, they developed a focus on fast-ice sealing. This is where a group of Dorset hunters stake out all the breathing holes within a mile or so, and wait for seals to emerge and breath. It is a cooperative endeavour that requires almost unbelievable technical sophistication in tailoring, so as not to freeze to death, and weapon-making, to turn bones and stones into warheads that can instantly kill a seal, while retaining the body. Large areas are funnelled down to good sealing areas, although in the summer Dorset communities would dispese onto the land to use more diverse resources, although sometimes they would also group to take walrus, and likely belugas and sometimes even narwhale and polar bears, unbelievably heroic as that must have been, with their tiny weapons, launched by strength of arm from no further away than 20 meters from the animal, and in many cases hand-to-hand. Unbelievable, Moreau S. Maxwell says, and since all rhetoric fails me, I'm just going to repeat it. Unbelievable.

The advantage of sealing in particular is pretty basic. Seals have a lot of blubber. They are good winter food, and they supply plenty of heating/cooking/lighting fluid. There's a reason that the Dorset tradition lasted to the very onset of the Norse encounter. Seals are profitable to hunt, in terms of energy output for unit input. It's the summer living, until the floes form, that's tough, and tight social constraints are needed to ensure that the people who disperse after fish, birds and caribou, rendezvous at the winter sealing places on time and in good order. Ornately carved spirit drums are evidence of this "ideology." (Hey, Maxwell said it, not me!)

You probably see where I'm going with this. Anyway, the Dorset gave way to the Thule, who are presumably the descendants of Bering Strait Inuit who undertook a great migration eastwards in, say, 1300 or so. The "big picture" theorists put the Alaskan Inuit in a greater East Asian co-prosperity sphere, in a position to learn whaling from the Japanese, and trade for iron with the Chinese. Moreau S. Maxwell deems the Thules as properly an Iron Age culture, given that their elaborate equippage is dependent on iron tools, and access to good lumber from the south via trade. Both of these requirements explain, or justify, a whole set of Thule commitments to high-risk, high return investments such as dog teams and umiaks. Thule lifestyles require high-risk, fancy living, by High Arctic standards, and would be impossible without trade.

Now we ask how Dorset gave way to Thule. The migration explanation is justified by lack of evidence for a Dorset-Thule transition in place. The Dorset did not "evolve" into the Thule. Explanations have been in terms of displacement and extermination. Yet in at least one area, the Dorset seem to have disappeared on their own, conveniently making way for succcessor cultures.

No prizes for guessing that  the area where the Dorset just disappeared from was southwestern Greenland. Or that they then emptied out of the eastern Arctic. Or that the last Dorset-period settlements in some areas show evidence of Norse iron. Or that the Dorset survived into a phase of Norse interaction at Nanook, and, less certainly, in a chain of villages down the east coast of Hudson Bay, and down towards Newfoundland, until, just around the time of contact, they were replaced by Algonquin speakers.

So. Were the Norse Greenlanders actually Norse-ising Dorset people? Sheep, wool, blubber, even Christian missionaries, albeit Irish monks looking to set up a typical north Atlantic "church settlement" based around a bishop, an abbey, and skilled craftsmen. On the evidence of the second run of this natural experiment, in the 1700s, this is all that it would take to create a Norseising settlement.

So was Erik the Red an Eskimo? I don't know, but I am beginning to think it's the more likely explanation.  

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