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The Dorset culture (also called the Dorset Tradition) was a Paleo-Eskimo culture that preceded the Inuit culture in Arctic North America. Inuit legends mention the Tuniit (singular Tuniq) or Sivullirmiut ("First Inhabitants"), who were driven away by the Inuit. According to legend, they were "giants", people who were taller and stronger than the Inuit, but who were easily scared off (and/or killed) and retreated from the advancing Inuit. It is thought that the Dorset and the later Thule people were called Skræling by the Norse who visited the area.


Anthropologist Diamond Jenness in 1925 received some odd artifacts from Cape Dorset, Nunavutmarker, which seemed to derive from an ancient lifestyle unlike that of the Inuit. Jenness named the culture after the location of the find. His finds showed a consistent and distinct cultural pattern that included sophisticated and un-Inuit art that depicted, for example, uniquely large hairstyles for women and hoodless parkas with large, tall collars on both sexes. Much research since then, has revealed many details of the Dorset people and their culture.



The origins of the Dorset people are not well understood. They may have developed from the previous cultures of Pre-Dorset, Saqqaq or (less likely) Independence I. There are, however, problems with this theory: these earlier cultures had bow and arrow technology (which the Dorsets lacked), but possibly due to a shift from terrestrial to aquatic hunting, the bow and arrow became lost to the Dorset. Another piece of technology that is missing from the Dorset are drills: there are no drill holes in Dorset artifacts. Instead, the Dorset gouged lenticular holes. For example, bone needles are common in Dorset sites but they have long and narrow holes that have been painstakingly carved or gouged. Both the Pre-Dorset and Thule (Inuit) had drills.

Historical and cultural periods

Dorset culture and history is broken up into four periods, the Early (which began around 500 BC), Middle, Late (starting around AD 800), and Terminal (AD 1000 to 1500) phases. The Terminal phase was already in progress when the Thule entered the Canadian Arctic, migrating east from Alaska, and is most 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. Since 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, and they seem to have great difficulty adapting to this change. They apparently followed the ice north, and concentrated their settlements in the High Arctic during the Late and Terminal periods. As mentioned below, an isolated remnant of the Dorset may have survived on a few small Hudson Bay islands until 1902, but by 1500 they had essentially disappeared.


The Dorset were credited with a faultless understanding of their local environment (which they may have shared with the newly-arrived Inuit) but their adaptation was different from that of the whaling-based Thule Inuit, most specifically in that they did very little hunting of land animals such as polar bears and caribou (lacking bow and arrow technology), but instead relied very heavily upon sea mammals (mostly seal), which they hunted from holes in the ice. Their clothing was quite well adapted to extremely cold weather. Technological diagnostics of the Dorset culture include small and triangular end-blades, which were hafted onto harpoon heads. These harpoons were used to hunt primarily seal, but there was also some exploitation of larger sea mammals such as walrus and narwhales. Soapstone was utilized in the construction of lamps, which when filled with seal oil, would heat the Dorset dwellings during the cold and dark months. A third hallmark were distinctive burins - a special type of stone flake with a chisel-like edge which was probably also used for engraving, or for carving wood or bone. They were also used by Pre-Dorset groups, and usually had a distinctive 'mitten' shape. The Dorset were highly skilled at making exquisite miniature carvings, and very striking masks - both indicative of an active shamanistic tradition. The Dorset was remarkably homogeneous across the Canadian Arctic, but there were some important variations that have been noted in both Greenland and Newfoundland/Labrador regions (reference needed).

Interactions with the Inuit

There appears to have been minimal (if any) genetic connection between the Dorset and the Thule. There is however archaeological, cultural and legendary evidence to support Thule-Dorset interaction. For instance the Thule engaged in seal hole hunting, which is not known of from Alaska. The Dorset extensively used this hunting technique and it is likely a form of technology that needs to be taught. Further, the speed and direction of the Thule migration may imply Dorset-Thule connections. The Thule made an almost direct migration through foreign lands, all the way to Greenland in the span of a few centuries. For the Thule to have accomplished this task, it is highly likely they would have required directions and assistance, which the Dorset may have provided. The details of these Thule/Dorset interactions still contain many unknowns: did the Thule bring disease with them, how much direct conflict was there between the two peoples, what was the nature of their social interractions? That said, much can be inferred from Inuit legends, archaeology and the genetic studies mentioned above: the Thule were a strong people with a history of warfare and they had better weapons than the Dorset - and the process of "driving off" the Dorset spoken of in legends would likely have involved some form of direct conflict. Since there was almost no interbreeding between them, it would seem that social interactions did not go much beyond trading. Although archaeological evidence indicates that the Dorset were in steep decline when the Thule arrived, it also seems very likely that conflicts with the Inuit hastened that decline considerably.


A leading modern figure in the field of Tuniit/Dorset studies is Robert McGhee, who has written numerous books on this culture and the transition to the Thule (Inuit) tradition.

Canadianmarker poet Al Purdy wrote a poem entitled "Lament for the Dorsets" which starts "Animal bones and some mossy tent rings... all that remains of Dorset giants, who drove the Vikings back to their longships..." This poem laments the loss of their culture and describes them and their end.

The Sadlermiut

The Sadlermiut were a people living in near isolation mainly on and around Coats Islandmarker, Walrus Island, and Southampton Islandmarker in Hudson Baymarker up until 1902-03. They are often thought to have been the last remnants of the Dorset culture as they had preserved a distinct culture and dialect from the mainland Inuit.


  • Michael Fortescue, Steven Jacobson & Lawrence Kaplan 1994: Comparative Eskimo Dictionary; with Aleut Cognates (Alaska Native Language Center Research Paper 9); ISBN 1-55500-051-7
  • Robert McGhee 2005: The Last Imaginary Place: A Human History of the Arctic World; ISBN 0-19-518368-1
  • Robert McGhee 2001: Ancient People of the Arctic
  • Plummet, Patrick and Serge Lebel 1997 Dorset Tip Fluting: A Second 'American' Invention. Arctic Anthropology 34(2):132-162
  • Renouf, M.A.P. 1999 Prehistory of Newfoundland Hunter-Gatherers: Extinctions or Adaptations? World Archaeology 30(3):403-420

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