The Dorset Culture

dorset2

Photograph from the Cook expedition, 1907

The first people were giants
Their chests were broad and their hands could grab seals whole
They walked with spirits on the ice and never fell through
Though they were strong, they did not possess the tools of war
And the new people drove them back from the sea

—Excerpt from An Oral History of Baffin Island

The Dorset people predate modern-day Inuit of the Arctic Circle. A relatively recent archaeological find, the Dorset were culturally distinct from their Inuit successors, who dubbed them Sivullirmiut (meaning “first people.”) Though the Dorset culture has left significant archaeological record, no physical remains of the people themselves are known to exist.

Interestingly, the Dorset people have migrated into folklore, much in the way of “terror birds” in New Zealand or the Orang Pendek of Malaysia. Baffin island mythology speaks of a race of giants inhabiting what are modern-day Inuit settlements; slow, shy people who showed them the technique of ice fishing and lived in longhouses.

Not all appearances by the Sivullirmiut were benign, however. In an interview conducted by the Stefansson expedition on Wrangel Island, a Chukchi elder spoke of giants who stole and consumed children, so unmoved by cold that they would conduct raids even during the heart of a blizzard. The elder also showed expedition members two artifacts: a desiccated human foot measuring nearly a meter long and a scalp of red hair the size of a seal pelt. Both artifacts were claimed by the expedition and subsequently lost in the disastrous return to the United States.

Other such artifacts have been documented by various arctic expeditions, but no physical specimens have survived to undergo modern-day scrutiny. A photograph from Frederick Cook’s North Pole expedition(seen above) was said to depict the largest intact specimen: a full three-quarters of a body. Cook’s party was entreated to view the “stone village” by the Inhuguit people, a site situated north of Annoatok. The Europeans described a megalithic site comprised of stone slabs propped up in a formation that recalled Stonehenge. The Inhuguit claimed the stacks were door lintels and that the massive structure was once covered with hides. Though the expedition heavily documented their progress, the single snapshot of the body is the only evidence from the megalithic site known to exist. By the time Erik Holtved arrived to study the Inhuguit the tribe members with knowledge of the site’s location had long since deceased.

What caused the demise of the Sivullirmiut giants is still unclear, though it is generally agreed upon that the culture went extinct around the time of the medieval warming period( roughly 1500C.E.) Nunavut folklore holds that the giants were doomed to die with the ice that gave them life, and that the new people long ago chased the straggling survivors into the sea. There is also historical evidence that early Norse travelers came into contact with the Sivullirmiut some time before their extinction.

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