Thule Winter House

The Thule were an Indigenous people who began to occupy the Arctic, from Alaska to Greenland, around 1000 CE. In the winter, the Thule used a house built partially into the ground to keep them warm for long periods of time. One striking feature of this structure was the roof, which was sometimes made of whalebone. (See also Architectural History of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)




The floors and lower walls are made with flagstones, and the roof is held up by whale bones covered with skins and slabs of rock. The house is then covered with sod.

(courtesy Canadian Museum of Civilization)

Origins

The Thule winter house was a sophisticated structure, built partially into the ground. It was designed to provide comfort and warmth for prolonged periods of indoor living, often over the course of several years. The Thule built their winter house with whatever materials could be found: principally stone, earth, moss and whalebones, but sometimes also driftwood and sod.

DID YOU KNOW?
The Thule lived in a separate house type made of skins during the summer. (See also Tupiq.) Thule winter and summer houses each responded to the environmental and behavioural conditions of its season.

Construction

Typically, the Thule winter house was oval in shape. The external diameters were between about 3 and 9 m, and might be dug as much as 1 m into the ground.

A narrow, underground entrance passageway, a few metres long, angled up into the floor, provided an effective cold-trap. Cold air would be displaced to the lower part of the passage, away from the living space. The floors and walls were lined with stones or other solid materials.

The most impressive feature was the roof, which, in the central and eastern Arctic, was usually made from the bones of whales.

Function and Use

Much of what we know about the Thule comes from archeological studies. Excavated in the late 1970s, Brooman PointNunavut, in the Bathurst- Cornwallis Islands region of the High Arctic, showed that each Thule house was occupied for only a few years at most. Perhaps three to five houses were in use at a single time, likely from autumn to spring. The period of occupation was likely during the early 12th century CE.

Other Thule communities comprised single-family, two-family and communal dwellings, as at Cumberland Sound on Baffin Island, where roofs were covered with sod, stone and baleen. (Baleen are coarse bristles toothless whales use to filter their foods).

Decline

The Inuit continued the habitation patterns of their Thule ancestors until early after contact, when whalebone houses were abandoned — perhaps because of the cooling climate during the Little Ice Age of the 17th to 19th centuries. The domed snowhouse of the Inuit (known as an iglooiglu in Inuktitut) became the predominant winter dwelling form. The igloo form may well have been an old one: archaeologists have found snow knives among the Dorset people, the culture which preceded the Thule, suggesting that the Dorset may have built with snow prior to 1000 CE.


Indigenous Perspectives Education Guide

Inuit Collection

Further Reading

  • Keith J. Crowe, A History of the Original Peoples of Northern Canada (2001).

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