Monday, November 29, 2010

What is Independence I?

Independence I reproductions (L) and artifacts (R)
I've mentioned Independence I a few times in the context of the Quttinirpaaq National Park reproductions.  Independence I is the name that archaeologists have given to the sites and artifacts left by the first people to populate  the Canadian High Arctic and northern Greenland, beginning about 4400 years ago.

Independence I is an unusually appropriate name for a group of Arctic pioneers, but the origin of the name is simply the location that the first sites belonging to this culture were found; Independence Fjord in northeastern Greenland.  In Greenland, sites belonging to this culture date from 4400-3300 B.P.   These early Palaeoeskimo sites were first described in the 1950s by Eigil Knuth, a Danish archaeologist.  He called the earlier sites, located at higher elevations, Independence I and the lower, later sites Independence II.  There aren't any Independence I sites in Newfoundland and Labrador, but there are remarkable similarities between Independence II artifacts and the tools found at Groswater Palaeoeskimo sites in this Province.

Muskox provided food, tents, clothes, but not fuel
Its hard to imagine the lives of the Independence I people, because the archaeological evidence creates a picture that is very different from the way the Inuit and even later Palaeoeskimo peoples lived in the far north.  The faunal remains suggest that musk-ox, and not seals were the primary source of food and resources for the Independence I people.  All of their dwellings seem to have been above ground tents, without any evidence for semi-subterranean dwellings, which became the standard cold season houses amongst later groups.  There's little or no evidence for soapstone lamps which would have burned seal oil.  Instead, it appears that the Independence I people were relying on open fires, built in slab walled box hearths for heat, perhaps depending on a relative abundance of driftwood that has since been depleted from Arctic shores by thousands of years of scavenging.

Ancient People of the ArcticIn his book, Ancient People of the Arctic, Bob McGhee envisions an Independence I way of life that is "well beyond the bounds of endurance known from any human group described by anthropologists or historians." (McGhee 1996:64).  In an environment where the summer is perpetual daylight and the winter is perpetual night, McGhee reconstructs an annual cycle of activity for the Independence I people in which they take advantage of the brief summer to prepare for near hibernation in the winter.  Without seal oil lamps, the people would have relied on inactivity and the careful conservation of body heat, through extended periods of inactivity and sleep, to survive the darkness and cold.

According to McGhee:
Eigil Knuth was the first to suggest that the Independence people may have passed the winter 'in a kind of torpor'.  The months of winter darkness must have discouraged all but the most essential hunting, preventing women from sewing clothing and men from working at their crafts.  We are forced to imagine a winter life devoted to amusing the children, singing or telling stories, thinking of the coming summer, and dreaming.  Northern Canada used to teem with anecdotes of isolated White trappers who spent the winters in semi-hibernation, passing days or weeks at a time in dream rather than in the reality of cold darkness and scarce food.  The early Palaeo-Eskimos may have survived the High Arctic only by adopting such a way of life as the ordinary custom for an entire society. (McGhee 1996:64-65)
Southern Ellesmere Island in September.  Imagine living on Northern Ellesmere Island in February with your family, in a Muskox skin tent.
Scraper from Kettle Lake, Quttinirpaaq
 On one hand its seems like a bleak existence, but as McGhee goes on to argue, it could also have been one rich in imagination, which may have have laid the groundwork for the artistic expressions of later Palaeoeskimo people.

Photo Credits:
1-3,5,6: Tim Rast


  1. "There aren't any Independence I sites in Newfoundland and Labrador"

    Although the differences between Pre-Dorset and Independence I are sometimes subtle (and largely attributed to geographic and slight temporal differences), what about Tuck's Independence I findings in Saglek Bay?

    If accepted as Independence I, might this early Palaeoeskimo occupation at Saglek Bay be part of a larger explanation for the similarities between Groswater and Independence II (if the later is a development from Independence I?

  2. Yeah, you're right - I missed the Saglek Bay stuff because its filed in my head as pre-Dorset instead of Independence I. It certainly seems like those Labrador sites are part of some bigger network that includes the High Arctic Independence I sites and probably the earlier part of Saqqaq as well.

    I'm sure I've got an oversimplified impression of Independence I, but I strongly associate that culture with both the High Arctic and Muskox. I guess I don't know whether Independence I describes a people, a toolkit, or a way of life. If its either of the first two, then the sites at Saglek could certainly be Independence I, but if its the later, then the I don't know. There's no Muskox there, so the pre-Dorset people in Labrador must have had a significantly different way of life from their contemporaries farther north, even though they shared a toolkit and genepool.


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