Prehistoric Peoples
The Thule

The First Arrivals

Maritime Archaic Tradition

Palaeo-Eskimo Peoples

Intermediate Indians

Recent Indians


Palaeo-Eskimo culture appears to have had its origin in Alaska.
These people tended to camp in sheltered inner areas along the coast of northern Labrador.
The toggling harpoon was a very effective tool and more efficient than older forms.
Extinction may have been the result of poor hunting conditions.
Port au Choix was a prime location for hunting harp seals.
There is an abundance of carved objects from the late Dorset culture.
Palaeo-Eskimo Peoples

The term "Palaeo-Eskimo" (palaeo=old) is used to refer to the peoples of the Arctic who lived before the Thule. The Thule were the direct ancestors of the Inuit who now inhabit the Canadian north. Palaeo-Eskimo peoples may be remotely related to the Inuit, but they are not the direct ancestors of any modern Arctic people.

Palaeo-Eskimo culture appears to have had its origin in Alaska a little more than 4,000 years ago. The first Palaeo-Eskimo people to arrive in the Canadian high Arctic were probably the Independence I people, named after Independence Fjord in northeast Greenland where their artifacts were first described.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, many archaeologists divide Palaeo-Eskimo prehistory into two major phases: the "Early Palaeo-Eskimo" phase, lasting from about 3800 years BP (Before Present) to about 2200 BP, and the "Late Palaeo-Eskimo" phase, running from about 2500 BP to sometime between 1000 BP and 500 BP. Despite the fact that the Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture phase extends into that of the Late Palaeo-Eskimo phase, archaeologists disagree as to whether the latter phase is derived from the earlier.

The earliest Palaeo-Eskimo artifacts in the province were first found in Saglek Bay, in northern Labrador, and date to about 3800 years ago. Newfoundland archaeologist James Tuck argues that the first of these Palaeo-Eskimo peoples to be identified in Labrador bears a strong resemblance to the Independence I culture of Greenland and the high Arctic. These people left behind very distinctive tools that are often made of bright, almost jewel-like cherts, and are quite small in size. (Their small size led earlier archaeologists to refer to them as belonging to the "Arctic Small Tool Tradition"--a term that is now seldom used.)

Independence I Artifacts.
Saglek Bay, Labrador.
Courtesy of J. A. Tuck, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland.
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Independence I Artifacts

The tools used by these Early Palaeo-Eskimos include harpoons tipped with tiny stone end blades that are often serrated (like a modern kitchen knife), small projectile points that are probably arrowheads, scrapers, used to remove fat from skins, small stone knives, and burins--thin stone tools used to make grooves in bone and wood. Small adzes are also sometimes found on Palaeo-Eskimo sites which suggests that these people were also working wood. Like all Palaeo-Eskimo peoples, Early Palaeo-Eskimos also used microblades, perhaps the most commonly found artifact on Palaeo-Eskimo sites. Microblades are small, sharp stone flakes that might have been used almost like disposable pocket knives, or razor blades.

These Early Palaeo-Eskimos lived in a variety of dwellings, some of which have been identified by archaeologists from the Smithsonian Institution, working in northern Labrador. One such structure was bilobate in form and was probably covered with skin stretched over a framework of wood or perhaps walrus ribs. These houses had a pavement of flat stones and a mid-passage hearth constructed of upright slabs of stone set in the ground.

Surprisingly, the Smithsonian researchers found that these people tended to camp in sheltered inner areas along the coast of northern Labrador, rather than on the outer islands and headlands, even though one would expect marine birds and mammals to be more plentiful in the outer zones. It has been suggested that the earliest Palaeo-Eskimo peoples spent the spring hunting seals in the more exposed outer areas, and the summers further up the bays fishing, birding, and hunting caribou. In the fall, these hunters would have undoubtedly taken harp seals on their southward migration, while in the winter it is possible that they picked out sheltered areas from which to take the occasional caribou and to live on stored food.

Map of Palaeo-Eskimo Occupation
Palaeo-Eskimo Occupation of Newfoundland and Labrador, ca. 3500-2000 Years BP.
This map shows important, present day archeological sites.
Illustration adapted by Tina Riche with permission, 1997. From J.A. Tuck, "Prehistoric Archaeology in Atlantic Canada Since 1975," Canadian Journal of Archaeology no. 6 (1982): 203.

Between about 3500 BP and 3000 BP, this early Palaeo-Eskimo population in Labrador appears to have experienced a population loss, perhaps because of competition from Maritime Archaic Indian peoples. There were, however, Palaeo-Eskimo peoples in northern Labrador and on the island of Newfoundland during this period, and archaeologists often refer to these people as the "Pre-Dorset". Labrador, however, has relatively few Pre-Dorset sites; they are much more numerous in the Arctic, particularly in the low eastern Arctic. These Pre-Dorset people in the Arctic, at least, appear to have been more numerous than their Independence I predecessors, perhaps because of a superior technology, especially a very effective type of harpoon called a toggling harpoon, which was much more efficient than the older forms. A device like this could mean a much higher success rate in taking animals, and hence a more dependable food supply, and thus perhaps a larger human population.

Pre-Dorset Artifacts.
Cow Head, Newfoundland.
Courtesy of J. A. Tuck, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland.
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Pre-Dorset Artifacts

Around 3000 BP there is evidence of a rapid population growth in Newfoundland and Labrador, due to the emergence of a new culture which archaeologists call the "Groswater", named after Groswater Bay on the coast of central Labrador. Many of the tools used by the Groswater people are similar enough to those of the earliest Palaeo-Eskimos that we can be reasonably sure that the Groswater culture is derived from that of the earlier Palaeo-Eskimo population. One possible reason for the success of the Groswater culture may be the demise of the Maritime Archaic people in Newfoundland around 3200 BP. By about 2200 BP, however, the Groswater people disappeared from the island of Newfoundland, and not long after they vanished from Labrador. The Groswater demise is not unusual in Newfoundland prehistory and like other extinctions, may have been the result of a number of years when hunting was so poor that local bands died out.

Groswater Artifacts Groswater Artifacts.
Red Bay, Labrador.
Courtesy of J. A. Tuck, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland.
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After a few centuries, however, we see the appearance of Late Palaeo-Eskimos, a people often referred to as the Dorset in the archaeological literature. Dorset culture may have originated in the Foxe Basin area between the mouth of Hudson Bay and Baffin Island, and it was much more elaborate than Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture. Dorset peoples used soapstone vessels and lamps (which means that they were not dependent upon wood for fuel; they could burn seal oil for heat and light in these soapstone containers). There is also evidence that they made sleds, perhaps pulled by hand, rather than by dogs, and some evidence that the Dorset built kayak-like boats. Objects interpreted as snow knives have been recovered from Dorset sites, and this suggests that they may have known how to construct the snow houses, popularly known today as igloos. All of this indicates a people who were more oriented toward the sea than previous Palaeo-Eskimo cultures, and this suggestion is borne out by the location of their sites, a high proportion of which are located on exposed headlands and outer islands.

Dorset Artifacts from Newfoundland.
Courtesy of J. A. Tuck, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland.
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Dorset Artifacts

Many of these sites, such as Port au Choix, recently excavated by Memorial archaeologist, Priscilla Renouf, are quite large and show evidence of a long-term commitment to place. Renouf has excavated huge amounts of harp seal bones at Port au Choix, indicating that this place was a prime location for the hunting of these animals. Their sophisticated hunting technology may be the reason why Dorset sites are so numerous on the island of Newfoundland - in fact, in terms of population, they may have been the most numerous Aboriginal people ever to occupy the island.

Dorset culture disappeared from the island, however, by about 1200 years ago, and from northern Labrador sometime between 1000 and 500 years ago. Indeed, the Dorset people vanished entire from Greenland and the Canadian Arctic, the majority (at least those outside of the island of Newfoundland) perhaps displaced by the Thule, the ancestors of today's Inuit. It is possible that some of the Dorset people in the Arctic merged with the Thule, but there is little evidence that this happened. Dorset extinction in Newfoundland was probably due to other factors--likely a repeated failure in either the caribou or the harp seal hunt.

One of the characteristics of late Dorset culture is an abundance of carved objects--many of them astounding in their realism and power. In the Arctic, Dorset artists, using ivory, bone and wood, carved bears, fish, birds, human faces, all in a remarkable style not previously seen in the region. In Labrador, the preferred medium was soapstone, and today the Newfoundland Museum houses a remarkable collection including human figures, polar bears, birds, a human skull, and many other representations of the natural and the supernatural world. Some archaeologists believe that this artistic profusion represents a reaction to the threat of Thule encroachment--a way of establishing boundaries between the two peoples, perhaps, or possibly an indication of a people turning to the spirit world for remedies for the problems of this world.

Soapstone bear cubs Soapstone bear cubs from Northern Labrador.
Courtesy of Newfoundland Museum.
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© 1998, Ralph T. Pastore
Archaeology Unit & History Department
Memorial University of Newfoundland

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