- Historic Sites
A Far-flung People
The unique, durable culture of the Eskimo included settling arguments with song and sharimong friends
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
The Eskimo were the first inhabitants of the New World to be seen by Europeans, for the Vikings encountered them at least as early as 1005, probably on the southeast coast of Labrador. Surprisingly, the numerous Norse sagas made little mention of them at first. But within another two centuries the Eskimo were already being described with the exaggeration and lack of understanding that later came to typify the European’s view of the natives of the New World. The anonymous author of the thirteenth-century Historia Norvegiae wrote: “Hunters have found some very little people, whom they call Skraelings, and who, when they are wounded with weapons while still alive, die without loss of blood, but whose blood, when they are dead, will not cease to flow.”
Nor does much reliable information exist about the numbers of Eskimo. The population probably was never very high, perhaps 100,000 or so at its maximum, but soon after contact with whites the number of Eskimo plummeted because of epidemics of measles, smallpox, and other European diseases that they had not previously encountered and to which they therefore had no immunity. The Eskimo population is believed to have risen again in this century to an estimated 73,000, living from extreme northeastern Siberia across Alaska and Canada to Greenland.
The Eskimo today inhabit the broadest stretch of land of any primitive people on earth. They circle nearly half the globe along the Arctic coast, a distance of some six thousand twisting and turning miles. This is a considerably smaller area than they inhabited in aboriginal times, however, for in the seventeenth century the Eskimo were reported as far south as the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and there is archeological evidence of their having once inhabited a large part of eastern Siberia (about fifteen hundred or so Eskimo still live in Soviet Russia). No other primitive people spread out over such a wide area has ever shown an equal uniformity in physical type, language, and culture. They everywhere refer to themselves as inuit , which is simply the plural of inuk , “man,” and in that way they emphasize their own identity in contrast to the Indians around them, who differ in physical type, language, and culture. The white man’s name, Eskimo, was coined in 1611 by a Jesuit who heard them called eskimantsik , which means “eaters of raw meat,” by neighboring Indians. No matter where they live, most Eskimo are readily identifiable by their stocky build, long heads and short faces, and narrow slanting eyelids with the Mongoloid fold. Their dialects, with the exception of a few in Siberia and in Alaska, are mutually intelligible; a new song or joke introduced into Alaska makes its way from one scattered camp to another and may turn up in Greenland a year or so later. Those few Eskimo who have not yet entered the white man’s economy still base their subsistence, in the traditional way, on hunting.
A common thread running through all Eskimo cultures was adaptation to the stern arctic environment. The latitudes inhabited by the Eskimo are marked by enormous differences between summer and winter. During the winter the sun does not shine for weeks; during the summer it never sets. Summer is the only time when the mean daily temperatures rise above freezing, but it is also the season of biting flies and of melted water lying over the tundra without draining away, forming an impenetrable morass. Tree growth is impossible under such conditions, and only in a few places occupied by the Eskimo do even low tangles of willow and alder grow. For his supply of wood, the Eskimo had to rely on the drift brought into the Arctic Ocean by rivers that drain the interiors of Northern America and Asia.
Despite these unpromising conditions, the material culture of the Eskimo has always shown a more complex development than that of any other primitive people living on such a simple level as the family. They take advantage of almost one hundred per cent of the potential of their forbidding environment. Everyone has heard of at least some of their adaptations. The igloo, or snow house, was the best possible structure that could be built with the materials available; it was strong, easily constructed, and durable. Some Eskimo used the dog sled and the kayak, and they tailored their clothes so that the seams were waterproof. Slit goggles were made from ivory to protect against the blinding sun reflected from the snow. Deprived of wood for heating and light, they invented the smokeless stone lamp that burned seal oil. They even devised a beater for removing snow, and thus prevented fur clothing from deteriorating in the humid atmosphere of the igloo.