Prehistoric Peoples
The Thule

The First Arrivals

Maritime Archaic Tradition

Palaeo-Eskimo Peoples

Intermediate Indians

Recent Indians


The Thule are the prehistoric ancestors of the Inuit who now live in northern Labrador.
In a region where Europeans and their descendants have never been able to live without outside assistance, the Thule people flourished.
When hunting or travelling, the Thule built snow houses, popularly called "igloos".
The Thule culture was based upon their ability to kill huge bowhead whales that could reach up to 20 meters in length.
The sewing skills of Thule women were as vital to the survival of a community as those of a male hunter.
The Thule

The Thule are the prehistoric ancestors of the Inuit who now live in northern Labrador. (The name comes from a small community in northwestern Greenland where the culture was first classified.) Thule culture appears to have grown out of an exchange of ideas, and perhaps peoples, from the Bering Sea and the north coast of Alaska just before about 1000 years ago. Many archaeologists believe that around 1000 years ago, as the climate of the earth warmed, leads opened up in the ice of the Beaufort Sea and Amundsen Gulf allowing these north Alaskan people to follow bowhead whales eastward in the summer. The Thule culture, as archaeologists would call it, rapidly spread out across the Canadian Arctic and eventually to Greenland and Labrador.

Members of the Thule culture developed a remarkable technology to deal with the Arctic. In a region where Europeans and their descendants have never been able to live without outside assistance, the Thule people flourished. They were able to use the bones, teeth and skins of the animals they killed in order to hunt those same animals. Large whaling and travelling boats called umiaks were constructed with a frame of walrus ribs covered with walrus hide. Smaller one-person, skin kayaks were also used in the whale hunt. Driftwood was cleverly fashioned into dog sleds which often had whale bone runners, and sealskins were cut and braided into the harness and traces. Sea-mammal bone and ivory were carved into harpoons and lances, and musk ox horn was used to reinforce the short, powerful Inuit bow.

Self-pointed bone harpoon
Self-pointed bone harpoon.
Photo courtesy of the Newfoundland Museum.

This remarkable technology extended to housing as well. In winter, the Thule lived in warm pit houses dug well into the ground, paved with flat stone slabs and framed with wood or whale ribs and jaws. This frame was covered with walrus skin upon which sods were piled. Entry into these houses was through a long tunnel which dipped down at its centre thus trapping the cold air below the level of the house floor. Inside these houses Thule families could rest comfortably on stone platforms covered with furs. The long winter nights were lit and heated with soapstone lamps which burned seal and whale oil. In the spring, when the ground began to thaw and water accumulated in the pit houses, the people moved into skin tents which would be their homes until the next winter.

When hunting or travelling, the Thule built snow houses, popularly called "igloos"--another invention superbly adapted to Arctic conditions. Using special snow knives made of bone or horn, Thule igloo-builders carved blocks of snow and piled them one upon another to create the familiar domed structure so often associated with the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic. The heat from a soapstone lamp burning seal or whale oil would glaze the inside of these snow houses with a layer of ice that helped to keep out the cold and wind.

Antler snow goggles with sinew cord
Antler snow goggles with sinew cord.
Photo courtesy of the Newfoundland Museum.

Thule hunting technology was as ingenious as their house-building. Their culture was based upon their ability to kill huge bowhead whales that could reach up to 20 meters in length. These whales provided enormous amounts of food that could keep a village well-fed throughout a long winter. To kill them, Thule whalers used umiaks that could hold 20 or so men to bring them to the whale. Once a whale was spotted and the umiak closed with it, a harpooner would thrust a large toggling harpoon into the animal. A series of inflated sealskin floats attached to the line acted as a drag hindering the whale from diving to escape his hunters. When the whale surfaced, more harpoons and lances would be driven into it until the animal was dead.

In winter, when land-fast ice made whaling impossible, seal hunters had developed a very effective way of taking animals through the ice. First the hunter would cut a hole through the ice and then place a feather or a chip of wood in the water. When it moved, it was a signal that a ringed seal was coming up to breathe. To keep the water clear of ice, the hunter periodically scooped out the ice with a device that looked like a paddle with holes in it. To attract seals, the hunter sometimes scratched on the ice with seal claws. When the indicator fluttered, the hunter drove his harpoon (a smaller version of the whaling harpoon) into the seal and dragged it up. Often, the hunter fitted a "wound plug", carved of ivory, into the wound to keep the blood, a highly nutritious food, from leaking away.

While hunting seals, a Thule man had to keep warm and dry. A wet foot could ultimately result in frozen toes, and perhaps death through gangrene. Thus the sewing skills of Thule women were as vital to the survival of a community, as those of a male hunter. Waterproof sealskin was used for boots and Thule women sewed incredibly tiny, tight stitches using a sinew thread. (The favoured sinew, or tendon, was taken from the backs of caribou.) Holes were pierced in the skin with a bone awl, and then sewed with a fine, bone needle. Where waterproofing was necessary, Thule women sewed a double line of stitches along two pieces of skin that overlapped. When the sinew thread got wet, it swelled, effectively plugging up the holes made by the awl. Leggings and parkas were commonly made of caribou hide. Caribou hairs are hollow and contain air--an excellent insulator. Caribou skin clothing was often exquisitely tailored, light, and incredibly warm. It was far superior to the heavy woolen clothing used by Europeans in the Arctic.

As one might expect, Thule transportation was equally well-adapted to the Arctic. In cold weather, the people used dog teams pulling sleds. These light, strong sleds were usually made of driftwood with whalebone runners. So that they would glide more easily across the snow and ice, drivers would often pour water over the runners; the water froze almost instantly and the sled now had runners that were almost as slick as teflon. On water, as we have seen, the umiak was the preferred vessel for transporting large numbers of people, goods and dogs. Single hunters or travellers, however, used the light, skin boat called a kayak. This too was another invention unique to Arctic peoples. The boatman sat in the kayak with a "skirt" fastened from his waist to the deck which prevented water from coming in and swamping his vessel. Powered by a double-bladed paddle, it was faster and more manoeuvrable than any one-person European vessel.

This, then, was the technology that Thule people brought to Labrador about 750 years ago. As one might expect, the earliest Thule sites are found in the far north of Labrador at places such as Killinek Island and Staffe Island. Here, Smithsonian archaeologist William Fitzhugh found evidence of what may be some of the earliest Thule people to come to Labrador. Between about 1250 AD and 1450 AD Thule pioneers, whose forebears had almost certainly lived in Baffin Island, established three villages from which they hunted walrus, seal, and birds. These small settlements, perhaps numbering 25 to 35 individuals, appear to have been occupied in the late winter/early spring. The Staffe Island people built two types of houses, shallow, rectangular houses, averaging about 4 x 5 m, and deeper rectangular houses, averaging about 5 x 6 m. The larger houses had paved entrance passages, interior rock roof supports, paved floors, and rear sleeping platforms. Evidence of cooking and small pieces of slate ulu knives (commonly used by Inuit women) were recovered from the eastern side of the house which led the archaeologists to suggest that this was the women's side of the house. By contrast, flensing knives, and harpoon and lance blades were recovered from the west side of the house, suggesting that this was the men's side.

Ulu with ivory handle and slate blade Ulu with ivory handle and slate blade.
Photo courtesy of the Newfoundland Museum.

In 1989, the Smithsonian archaeologists found evidence of what they believe to be a kashim, or ceremonial house, at Staffe Island. It was oval in shape and lacked a sleeping platform, but instead, there were stone benches along the walls. Relying upon records from the Moravian missionaries, who came to Labrador in the late 18th century, Canadian Museum of Civilization ethnologist, J. Garth Taylor, has found evidence of Labrador Inuit construction and use of the kashim. Such structures were used as communal buildings within which people sang, danced, and carried out rituals important to the survival of the community. The discovery of this sort of structure at Staffe Island provides a useful glimpse at the spiritual and communal life of Labrador's first Inuit.

Important locations in Labrador
Important locations in Labrador.
Illustration by Tina Riche and Duleepa Wijayawardhana, ©1998.

Staffe Island represents the beginning of the Thule occupation of Labrador. By about 1500 AD, the Thule settlers had reached Saglek, and by perhaps 1550 AD the Labrador Inuit, as they should be designated by that date, had established their settlements in the Nain-Hopedale region. Not long after, Labrador Inuit explorers had reached the Basque site at Red Bay, perhaps in search of the abundance of iron objects to be found at such places. Here, Memorial University archaeologist James Tuck has reported finding a slate endblade, a soapstone pendant, and seal bones used in an Inuit game. By this time the complex interaction between the Inuit and Europeans that is characteristic of the historic period had begun.

© 1998, Ralph T. Pastore
Archaeology Unit & History Department
Memorial University of Newfoundland

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