Describes Arctic landscape and Thule relationship with the environment. Includes rotating exterior view of summer Thule whalebone house in cross-section and inquiry links regarding Arctic climate." />
 Illustration of whalebone house with skin covering a partially visible frame 
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What is it Like to Live in the Arctic?

A visitor from the south may see the Arctic as a vast expanse of beautiful and pristine landscape with low shrubs, stunted trees, countless lakes, rivers and streams. As travelers journey northward, there are less and less plants. By the time you reach the desert of the high Arctic islands, even soil development is slow.

The Thule people knew this landscape intimately. It is a place of infinite variety, with animals and plants that have sustained people for thousands of years. This is where these people developed spiritual relationships with the land, plants and animals. This is where they travelled, hunted and raised their families.

What was it like to live along the edge of the Arctic Ocean over a millennium ago? What was the climate like? How did people adjust to the changing seasons?

How did the Thule People Find Shelter?

Living successfully in the Arctic requires that you are flexible and mobile. You have to move yourself and your family to specific areas where you know food is available. However, the availability of animals and plants is often highly seasonal in Arctic regions, meaning that you have to schedule your movements on the land and sea ice in order to get the food you need.

Thule people adjusted to seasonal changes by hunting different types of birds and animals (land and marine) when they were available. Whales were hunted in spring and fall, as were caribou. Seals and walrus were hunted in the winter and spring, and fish were caught during the summer months. Many other animal and plant species also were used. During the course of the year, Thule people moved about the landscape to access these resources. These seasonal patterns are directly reflected in housing styles.

Tents in the Summer

Thule people lived in hide tents during the summer. These tents were conical in shape, constructed from caribou, seal or muskox hides and supported by a wooden frame. The hide coverings were anchored to the ground using large rocks so the tent could withstand high winds. These rings of stone are still visible at many archaeological sites throughout the Canadian Arctic, and mark the locations of summer camping sites. The tent was built to face away from the prevailing winds, and a large opening covered by a piece of loose hanging seal skin marked the doorway.

Qarmat in Spring and Fall

Qarmats were used when it was too cold to live in a skin tent, yet too warm to occupy a semi-subterranean house. Europeans encountered Inuit making rectangular qarmat using snow and/or blocks of ice for walls, and caribou or muskox hide as roofs. Qarmat could be built on the surface, or in a shallow pit dug into the ground. Inside, the qarmat was arranged in a way that was identical to the semi-subterranean house. A raised sleeping platform was placed at the rear of the dwelling and a cooking area towards the front and to one side of the entrance. Qarmat may have been occupied year round in some areas of the Arctic, as British Explorer George Best observed in the sixteenth century.

The Snowhouse for Winter Traveling

The snowhouse, or iglu, is an icon of Inuit culture. These unique dome-shaped houses fascinated Europeans who were amazed by their warm interior temperatures, and how quickly Inuit could build them. Therkel Mathiassen observed some very large snow houses during his travels as a member of the Fifth Thule Expedition. Some of the larger snow houses he recorded had up to seven domes, connected together via tunnels and passageways. The use of large semi-subterranean whalebone houses by Thule people probably means that snow houses were used mainly as shelters when travelling. But snow houses were the primary winter dwellings used by many historic Inuit societies.

Usually two people were needed to build a snow house. A snow knife or sulung was used to cut blocks three to four feet in length, two feet in height, and about six to eight inches thick. In positioning snow blocks to form the first row of the house, the first block is cut down to the ground, and the top of the row forms the first thread of a spiral. The subsequent rows were placed in a similar fashion; inclined slightly inward and supported on two sides. Once the dome was constructed, a small window was cut over the entrance and covered with either a translucent patch of sewn seal intestine or a piece of fresh water ice.

Snow is a good insulator. As a result, iglu’s were heated by body heat and by burning sea mammal oil in small stone lamps. Two adults occupying an iglu 4.1 metres in diameter require approximately 3.9 kg of fat per day, to maintain an interior temperature of 50º C, with an outside temperature of -30º C.

Because snow and ice were used as construction materials, iglus are almost impossible to detect by archaeologists. We do have indirect evidence the Thule people used them. The long, crescent shaped snow knives (sulung) are often recovered at Thule archaeological sites.

Semi-underground Houses in Winter

Semi-underground whalebone houses were constructed from sod, stone and whalebone. Thule people used these house types mainly in the winter. While it has been over 70 years since members of the Fifth Thule Expedition first examined Thule whalebone houses, archaeologists today still know little about how these homes were constructed.

Whalebone is durable and it can be made into objects such as sled shoes and, in recent years, carvings. It’s not surprising that many Thule whalebone houses were mined for the bones after they were abandoned. This has reduced the number of intact houses found by archaeologists. Of the 43 houses excavated during the Fifth Thule Expedition, only a single house on Southampton Island had any of its original roof supports remaining.

 Inuit man at entrance of skin tent.

During the summer, Thule people lived in skin tent that were held in place with large stones. Inuit who live along Hudson Bay still lived in such tents as late as the early 20th century.
Collection of Glenbow Archives, NA-1338-115

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