Discusses various activities of Thule men, women and children. Includes rotating interior view of whalebone house and links regarding Thule activities categorized by gender and age." />
 Illustration of whalebone house interior 

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How Did Families Live, Work and Play in a Whalebone House?

Men and women were responsible for different jobs around the house, and therefore used different types of tools. Children also played in these houses, so toys are often found as well. Archaeologists pay careful attention to where different types of tools are found inside the house so that they can reconstruct where the activities of men, women and children took place.

Men’s Activities

Men were mainly responsible for hunting and fishing, and making tools needed for these activities. Tool making took place primarily on the sleeping platform of the house. Many other items were made in communal structures called kargi’s, which were the headquarters of Thule whaling crew.

Men’s knives were used primarily to butcher terrestrial and marine animals. Thule knives were made by inserting blades into slots carved into the ends and sides of ivory and bone handles. Sometimes tools were made with both side and end blades. Some of these tools were used to incise and decorate bone, antler and ivory. Many of the slots for knives are stained with rust, suggesting that iron and the trade of iron may have played a significant role in Thule manufacturing processes. This iron may have been acquired from the Norse, or from meteors in northern Greenland.

By far, the most important manufacturing tool in Thule society was the bow drill. The ankle bone of a caribou was held in the teeth of the operator to support the distal end of the drill. The sinew bow string was then wrapped around the drill and moved rapidly back and forth, twisting the “business end” of the drill through wood, bone and ivory. Many items found at Thule sites contain holes, suggesting that drilling was an important part of the manufacturing process. Many bow drills were elaborately decorated. One particular drill from Arctic Bay, for example, is decorated with scenes of warfare, and walrus and caribou hunting. Bow drills often accompanied their owners into the grave.

Thule hunters used different tools to hunt animals from the marine, terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems. These include the remarkable throwing and thrusting harpoons, with their endblades, foreshafts and shafts. Toggles were also inserted through a perforation made on the animal’s mouth and tied to a leather strap. The hunter used the strap and toggle to pull the animal back to camp.

Fishing was an important activity that occurred primarily during the warm months. Thule people used several methods for catching fish. Fish traps or weirs (saputit) were constructed using stones and three-pronged leisters were used to spear fish in weirs or shallow streams. Jigs were tied to sinew lines and dropped over the edges of ice flows. Nets were woven using net gauges, which are still used today in many Inuit communities. These nets were sometimes supported using wooden net floats, and were set at high tide to catch such fish species as Arctic Char.

Although it may be difficult to believe, strenuous activity in the Arctic often leads to dehydration. European explorers frequently remarked on the great quantities of water consumed by Inuit men, carried in skin bags.

Snow blindness is another hazard of travelling and hunting on sea ice. This painful condition is caused when unprotected eyes are exposed to ultraviolet light. It can be a serious problem in the Arctic where light is reflected off snow and ice. (Snow blindness is like a sunburn on the cornea and conjunctiva of the eye.) Thule hunters, like their Inuit descendants, carved snow goggles out of ivory and bone to prevent snow blindness. The goggles were often curved to fit the hunter’s face, and a sinew strap was used to keep the goggles attached to the head. Two long slits were carved through the goggles so they covered each eye. These slits limited the amount of light hitting the eye, making snow goggles among the world’s first sunglasses!

 Smiling Inuit man wearing bone snow goggles.

As the sun rises above the horizon in the spring it creates a bright glare as light reflects off the snow-covered earth. This glare can inflame the cornea of the eye, creating a painful and dangerous condition called “snow blindness”. Snow goggles restrict the amount of light reaching the eye and protect the wearer from this disabling affliction.
Fleming/NWT Archives/N-1979-050:0655

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