Inuit History

There have been several major waves of human history in the Arctic regions of Alaska, Canada and Greenland. For thousands of years, a remarkable people have called the remote Arctic home. These peoples have adapted to harsh conditions, developing a unique culture and artistic expression of their remote world.



About 4,000 years ago, a group of peoples spread eastward through the central and eastern Canadian high Arctic. They came from Alaska, crossing the Bering Sea from Asia, where they had originated centuries earlier. This culture, known as the Pre-Dorset culture, was very mobile, living in small settlements with only a few families. They used small, delicate, stone tools and summered in skin tents. The harpoon, bow and arrow and spear were the tools used to hunt caribou, seal, fish, birds, bears, musk-ox and wolves. One group from the Pre-Dorset culture actually migrated as far as Greenland.



About 800 B.C., the pre-Dorset culture was replaced by a new phase: the Dorset culture. This group is named from evidence of its culture found in present-day Cape Dorset. Living in skin tents in the summer and subterranean houses in winter, the communities consisted of three to fifteen homes. During the Dorset period, a distinctive artistic style developed: delicate carvings, realistic or abstract, made of ivory, antler and bone. In the Inuit legends told today, the Dorset peoples are called Tuniit or Tunirjuat.



Between A.D. 900–1300, a wave of people from Alaska displaced the Dorset peoples. These newcomers, known as the Thule culture, migrated along the Arctic coast, through the High Arctic islands and eastward as far as northwestern Greenland. Highly dependent on the bowhead whale, remnants of whale bones can still be found on the sites of old camps. Villages of six to thirty houses made of stone slabs, whale bone and sod were common. Snow houses were used as temporary dwellings in the winter. This culture of "Eskimo" survived until about A.D. 1750 when the "little ice age" forced many people to withdraw from villages in the Arctic islands. The cooling climate covered the seas with ice, limiting the range of the bowhead whale. A more nomadic way of life evolved with small groups hunting seal and walrus. This change marked the end of the Thule culture and the beginning of the modern Inuit culture.

Additional Resources:

  • Inuit: The North in Transition, Ulli Steltzer. 1982. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

  • Inuit Art: An Anthology, Watson & Dwyer Publishing, 1988. Winnipeg, Manitoba.

  • A History of the Original People of Canada, Keith J. Crowe. 1991. McGill-Queen's University Press: Montreal.

  • Subjects:
    Culture and Diversity