The Dorset Palaeo-Inuit emerged at some point around 2,800 years ago (ca. 800 to 500 BCE). They persisted until 600 to 700 years ago (ca. 1300 to 1400 CE). Archaeologists generally separate this roughly 2,000-year period into three periods or traditions. These periods are called the Early Dorset (ca. 800 BCE to 1 CE), Middle Dorset (ca. 1 to 500 CE) and Late Dorset (ca. 500 to 1300-1400 CE). The timing and causes of their disappearance are still debated. However, it occurred only a few centuries after the arrival of the early Inuit (Thule). Early Inuit were culturally and genetically distinct from the Dorset (see also Geographical Distribution of the Dorset Culture).
While there is significant debate regarding the validity of the Early-Middle-Late periods, there are a number of notable changes that should be considered. In any case, the Dorset period marks a significant shift from the lifeways of their Pre-Dorset ancestors.
Archaeology in the Arctic has been overwhelmingly conducted by non-Indigenous scholars from more southern regions of Canada. More recently, community archaeology projects, Inuit collaboration in historical/archaeological research and the presence of archaeologists who are Inuit has increased. These changes have changed the discipline for the better. However, the legacy of the colonial foundation of archaeology still impacts the discipline. The way we refer, classify and understand the largely Indigenous past of the Arctic is impacted by this foundation.
Diamond Jenness was the first archaeologist to formally identify a collection of archaeological material as the “Dorset culture.” He named this group after the community of Kinngait (then called Cape Dorset). This was because that is where the collection of material he analyzed was originally from. Naming archaeological traditions or cultures after the region where they are first identified is common practice. However, “Dorset” is not the Inuit term for that community. It is actually derived from the Dorset region in England.
Inuit knowledge and oral histories identify at least two groups that lived in the Arctic prior to the Inuit. The first inhabitants of the Arctic are generally referred to as Sivullirmiut. A second, more recent group is referred to as the Tuniit. Sometimes, both terms refer to the same people. In Inuit oral histories, there are a number of instances where the Inuit directly interacted with the Tuniit. Furthermore, a lot of the descriptions of the Tuniit closely resemble the archaeological evidence for the Dorset. For this reason, many consider Tuniit and the Dorset to refer to the same people. Since Arctic archaeology developed separately from Indigenous oral histories, the two terms remain in use. However, recently archaeologists have advocated for replacing the term “Dorset” with “Tuniit” in order to be more respectful of and consistent with Inuit knowledge of the past. “Dorset” is the more common term in the archaeological literature, which is why it is used here.
Unlike the Pre-Dorset, there is nearly no evidence for bow and arrow or bow drill use by the Dorset. The lack of bow and arrow undoubtedly impacted how they hunted. Also, the absence of bow drills meant that nearly all holes in Dorset objects were gouged. This leaves a distinctive oval perforation (as opposed to a round drilled hole). This is one of the most recognizable aspects of Dorset material culture. There is also little evidence of the Dorset using dogsleds or large watercraft (see Umiak). Despite these supposed “limitations,” the Dorset thrived in the Arctic for thousands of years.
Similar to the Pre-Dorset, the Dorset primarily used pressure flaked stone tools. While the specific forms changed throughout each period, the core function of most stone tools remained the same. They would attach these flaked stone tools to wooden, ivory, antler or bone handles. After attaching the handles, they would use them to hunt, process animal or plant materials, and carve or decorate objects. There are also many broad changes in the relative abundance of some types of stone tools between each of the three periods. For example, ground slate tools (which are not pressure flaked) are abundant in Early Dorset. However, they become less common in later periods.
Many Dorset sites have a lot of evidence of stone lamps and vessels. These are mostly made out of steatite (also called soapstone). They are portable technologies that the Dorset used to heat and light the world around them. Much like their stone tools, the forms of these vessels changed across time.
Organic preservation is much better in the Dorset period. This means implements made out of bone, ivory, antler and wood are more common in archaeological collections. One major shift at the start of the Dorset period is an increased abundance of equipment used for living and hunting in snowy or icy environments. Sled runners for hand-pulled sleds, snow knives (used for making snow houses like igloos), crampons (attached to boots to give traction on ice), and a variety of different hunting implements, such as larger walrus harpoon heads, are all more common in the Dorset period.
Along with the preservation of utilitarian objects made from organic materials, there is also more evidence for Dorset people making carved “art” objects. These become more common throughout time. The most evidence comes from Late Dorset sites. At one site in Nunavik, called Qajartalik, there is evidence of the Dorset carving faces into the bedrock. These represent the only known instance of rock art (see Pictographs and Petroglyphs) in the Eastern North American Arctic at this time. Taken together, this evidence hints at the complex socio-cultural belief systems of Arctic peoples at this time.
During the Late Dorset period, they began to use and exchange metal. There is no evidence of the Dorset smelting metal. However, they expertly cold-hammered copper and iron fragments into tools. These tools largely resemble their stone tools. Naturally forming copper nodules were collected around the Coppermine River and Victoria Island. Iron was gathered from the Cape York meteorite strewn field in northwest Greenland. These are the only two known sources of indigenous metal used by the Dorset. However, there is evidence that metal was exchanged across thousands of kilometres. As a result, metal is found at nearly every Late Dorset site. Through scientific analysis, archaeologists were able to determine a small number of Late Dorset metal objects were made from smelted metal. This suggests some amount of exchange or interaction with contemporary European Norse groups (see Norse Voyages) in southern Greenland.
Generally speaking, Dorset architecture was larger and more substantial than Pre-Dorset. They frequently lived in skin tents in the summer (similar to Inuit tupiit). Also, they built substantial, sub-rectangular sunken-floor houses during the colder months. These sunken-floor houses are similar in form and function to early Inuit winter houses. More distinct warm- and cold-season housing indicates the Dorset were more sedentary. Also, winter dwellings requiring substantial work to construct supports this idea.
An entirely new type of large communal dwelling type began use in the Middle Dorset Period. This is referred to as a “longhouse” by archaeologists. These longhouses are mostly found in the western Canadian Arctic in the Middle Dorset period. Longhouses become much more common during the Late Dorset period. They are found throughout the Arctic except for the Foxe Basin. These longhouse sites suggest new ways of Dorset people aggregating and interacting with each other. Also, they might indicate more intensive interaction than in the Early and Middle Dorset and Pre-Dorset periods.
Settlement and Subsistence
The Dorset were primarily marine-focused hunter-gatherers. Most of the evidence described below relates to hunted animals. However, Dorset people almost certainly had in-depth knowledge of plants and berries. Little evidence for this survives at archaeological sites. This makes it difficult to be certain of the role of plants in Dorset subsistence strategies.
The surviving faunal evidence, material culture, and architecture suggests a shift to more sedentary subsistence strategies starting in the Dorset period. Individual sites tend to have broader evidence of hunted species, which suggests a more sedentary and generalist approach. Furthermore, the evidence of new hunting implements and faunal evidence suggest the Dorset began to more frequently hunt large sea mammals like walrus. However, seals remained an important source of food, fuel, clothing and crafting materials. Unlike the early Inuit, there is no evidence for widespread whaling (see Bowhead Whale). In-land Dorset sites tend to show a lot of evidence of caribou hunting. There is even some evidence for extensive caribou drives (see Caribou Hunt) being built, which resemble large stone fence systems. Hunters would herd the caribou into these drives. They would direct the caribou to a specific location where other hunters were waiting to strike. The lack of bow and arrow use by the Dorset meant these hunters had to get very close to the caribou. There is also more evidence for birds and fish being consumed by the Dorset. However, this evidence is more poorly preserved compared to faunal material from larger animals.
There is a lot of evidence that the Dorset would store (or cache) their food. This was a way of keeping surpluses for future use in times of the year when hunting and gathering new food might be more difficult. Dorset caches resemble circular vaults constructed from loosely fitting stones. They are mostly located near their dwellings at a site. As with the other evidence discussed here, increased food storage suggests more sedentary settlement strategies than seen in the Pre-Dorset.