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Dorset culture

The Dorset culture occupied the Canadian Arctic and parts of Greenland from approximately 500 B.C. until around 1000 A.D. Dorset appears to have been a more successful adaptation to the conditions of this region than the preceding Arctic Small Tool tradition cultures from which it developed. This is demonstrated by the huge area occupied by Dorset groups and by evidence that they had perfected winter hunting on the sea ice. This was important since the Dorset people appear to have adapted very successfully to a climate that had become colder than that of encountered by their ancestors of the Arctic Small Tool tradition cultures. However, when the people of the Thule culture arrived in the Canadian Arctic around 1000 years ago the Dorset had largely or entirely disappeared for reasons that are not well understood.

World-famous for their exquisite miniature carvings, perhaps the paraphernalia of shamans, the Dorset may have been the first people in Arctic Canadaa to have the technology to build snowhouses, better known as igloos. This would have facilitated their spending the long winters in snowhouse camps out on the sea ice, hunting sea mammals at their breathing holes or at the edge of the landfast ice. Clearly this was an effective adaptation because the Dorset people flourished for almost 1500 years. However, by about A.D. 800 the climate had again entered a warming phase and the effects of this change on the numbers and distributions of animals may have put the Dorset way of life under considerable stress. One negative effect would have been the earlier summer breakup and later autumn freeze-up of the sea ice each year, shortening what would have been the most secure part of the year for them: the time when they could hunt sea mammals from the sea ice. For that reason and probably a range of other factors, Dorset populations appear to have undergone a dramatic decline and by A.D. 1000 they had virtually disappeared from most parts of their Arctic homeland when the people of the Thule culture arrived.

Click here to see pictures illustrating some characteristic Dorset artifacts and features