Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Collapse of Empires: The Dorset

I was watching a Blogginheads TV  posting, when one of the discusion participants, Jessa Gamble, mentioned the demise of the Dorset people at the hands of the Inuit.  When I started looking at it a little bit, surprise! There was a post by Jesse Gamble on the very subject.

Jesse Gamble from Blogginheads TV
The Dorset are not an Empire in any sort of traditional sense.  They are the people of the Canadian and Alaskan far north before the arrival of the Inuit (Thule - Eskimos) .  They are a rare prehistoric culture to acutally make it (barely) into history, as the Vikings showed up at one end of their territory, as they were being invaded on the other side by the Inuit.

Dorset culture and history is divided into four periods: the Early (which began around 500 BCE), Middle, Late (starting around CE 800), and Terminal (CE 1000 to 1500) phases. The Terminal phase was already in progress when the Thule entered the Canadian Arctic, migrating east from Alaska. It is probably closely related to the onset of the Medieval Warm Period, which started to warm the Arctic considerably around AD 800. With the warmer climates, the sea ice became less predictable and was isolated from the High Arctic.

The Dorset were highly adapted to living in a very cold climate, and much of their food came from hunting sea mammals through holes in the ice. The massive decline in sea-ice which the Medieval Warm Period produced would have had a devastating impact upon their way of life. They seem to have had great difficulty adapting to this change. They apparently followed the ice north. During the Late and Terminal periods, they concentrated their settlements in the High Arctic...Most of the evidence demonstrates that by 1500 they had essentially disappeared.
That is one story.  The other story is that the Inuit (Thule -Eskimos) killed them.

Jessa Gamble, The Last Word on Nothing 16 February 2011

When the Vikings came to the Arctic in the tenth century, they encountered the Dorset, whom they called Skraelings. “They do not know the use of iron, but employ walrus tusks as missiles and sharpened stones in place of knives,” reads the Historia Norvegiae, a 12th century Norse text. “When they are struck with a weapon their wounds turn white and they do not bleed.” As the Norse wore cloth, rather than the more blade-resistant animal skins of the Dorset, they may have been puzzled by these bloodless wounds they inflicted.
Then came whale hunters from Alaska. Ancestral Inuit brought along dog-sleds, umiaks and a tradition of warfare. When they encountered the Dorset people, the Inuit oral history recounts killing them and driving them away from their camps, taking occupation of the land.
Her post goes on to note (with some genetic testing to back it up) that one small groupof the Dorset, Sadlermiut, took up residence in Northern Hudson Bay islands of Walrus, Coats and Southampton. This group was virtually wiped out from a case of contagious dysentary from whalers that landed at their islands in 1901, with just a few survivors being adopted by the local Inuit.
The key point that allowed the Inuit to even reach the Dorset, is the warming period that opened up the ocean sufficiently to allow the boat using Inuit and Norse to travel into the previously frozen over area.   As we know from Jared Diamond's story, and the better Brian Fagan one, is that the Norse left again when it got cold again and the Inuit stayed.
Arctic Cultures, 900-1500 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)


PioneerPreppy said...

Now that is a find my friend. I assure you I will use this example at some point. Wish I had heard of them before now.

russell1200 said...

There are so many collapse stories out there it is amazing.

Unfortunately they tend to take above average time to piece together. In this case, Ms. Gamble (who lives somewhere in the frozen North) had done some of the pre-piecing.