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Thule Tradition Archaeology in the High Canadian Arctic

Living the High Life


Fraser River near Lillooet

Fraser River near Lillooet

Uli Harder
Thule Period Camp Ring, Nunavut, Canada

Thule Period Camp Ring, Nunavut, Canada

Alan Sim
Coppermine River, Nunavut, Canada

Coppermine River, Nunavut, Canada

Andrew F. Johnson

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. Rapidly, within a century or two, the Thule spread throughout Alaska, Canada, and Greenland.

The Thule (ca AD 1-1600) 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 main land 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 Iniut 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.


See the article New Dates on the Thule Migration for a discussion of the dating of this important event.

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


This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Arctic Culture, and the Dictionary of Archaeology. See page two for a list of sources, recent scholarly articles on the Thule.

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