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Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada

Early History

If someone were to ask the Inuit of today, “where did your culture come from?” we would have to say it came from both the Sivullirmiut and the Thule. Together, these two groups provided the foundation from which the Inuit cultures of today developed. In many ways, the two cultures were similar, but there were also important differences. The greatest similarity, however, is between the Thule culture and the Inuit way of life that was practised throughout the Canadian Arctic until a generation ago.

If we could travel back in time and visit this region about 8,500 years ago, we would probably find a population living in small communities along the coastline of the Bering Strait land bridge. We would see a way of life based on marine mammals and other species of animals, birds and fish that were hunted along the shorelines and islands of the ice-free waters. During certain seasons of the year, we would have observed hunters and their families moving inland to hunt in the valleys and to fish in the freshwater lakes and rivers.

As the population of this area grew and new territory was needed, the settlements gradually spread north along the coast and even inland along large river valleys. Eventually these regions spread north of the Seward Peninsula until they reached as far as the northern coast of Alaska. This must have been a very different environment for the people, since during the winter the open ocean was covered by a thick layer of ice. It was here that a remarkable shift in their way of life took place as the people who came before us developed the knowledge, skills and technology needed to use the winter sea ice environment to hunt marine mammals. This adaptation endures as one of the defining characteristics of Inuit culture from Alaska to Greenland.

These early groups that learned to live on the sea ice became very successful hunters, and their population started to grow and eventually expand eastwards. As they did so, new settlements were created. This movement east took place about 5,000 years ago by a people we refer to as the Sivullirmiut, which means the first people. Archeologists use the terms Pre-Dorset, Independence and Dorset to identify the Sivullirmiut.

In less than a thousand years, groups of Sivullirmiut travelled from the north coast of Alaska, east across Canada as far as southern Greenland. In Canada, early Inuit settled as far east and south as the Strait of Belle Isle on the coast of Newfoundland. As they moved, the Sivullirmiut established villages and hunting territory. Like their ancestors to the west, they were able to profit from the rich resources offered on the coast and further inland. Both land and coastal marine resources are important for our survival — Inuit, both then and now, have always relied on the harvest of marine mammals throughout the year.

As the Sivullirmiut began to establish living places and hunting areas, they began a process of continuous use of these areas year after year and generation after generation. Over time, patterns of regional groups started to develop, and these have remained relatively stable up to the present time.

When we are travelling and hunting today, we often come across the places where these early people made their homes. They did not disturb the Land even though they were here for more than a thousand years. Our Elders tell us that they came in silence and left in silence and that the Inuit living today must respect their deeds. The camps of the Sivullirmiut were located in the places where they could most easily find and harvest the animals they needed. 

Map of Cumberland Isle
Map of Cumberland Isle

The Thule came in a second wave of immigration across the North. As the Thule travelled eastwards from the Bering Strait in the footsteps of the Sivullirmiut, they often camped directly on top of seasonal Sivullirmiut settlements, which were located closest to food and resources. Even though the time frames of these two groups overlapped, there is currently no archeological evidence that they met and interacted. Still, it is undeniable that Sivullirmiut tools and ways of life were passed on from one group to the next. It was the adaption of Sivullirmiut ways, such as making seal oil lamps from soapstone and hunting at the breathing holes of seals, that allowed the Thule to thrive in the North.

The most important distinction between what preceded and followed the period in our history that is referred to as “classic Thule culture” is that the Thule people developed the hunting weapons, boats and harvesting skills required to harvest the very large whales of the northern seas. This specialization was first developed on the north coast of Alaska and was probably the most important reason why this new culture spread east into Canada so quickly.

When we are travelling and hunting today, we often come across the places where these early people made their homes.

The areas inhabited by the Thule are very close to the same places and areas used by the Sivullirmiut and by our own immediate ancestors. In fact, with the exception of southernmost Labrador, all of the territory used by present-day Inuit and by the Inuit who came before us has remained almost the same, generation after generation. Thule winter villages were quite large, more like those of recent Inuit rather than the small camps of the Sivullirmiut. This change in the size of the communities was probably based on having greater supplies of food from the whales and the number of people required to hunt them.

These early ancestors left evidence of their lives and cultures, but there are also many stories told about another group of people that we call Tunnit. Some stories describe the Tunnit as human-like, while other stories say that they were very big, almost like giants. All the stories describe the Tunnit as very strong — they could carry huge stones, and there are places where they made circles from these stones just for fun.

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