In the Field

The NOW Project: Living Resources and Human Societies in the North Water of the Thule Area

The archaeological team of the NOW Project excavated an activity area in front of a ‘qassi’ – a men’s house – at the Nuulliit peninsula. The investigations showed that the site was established by a group of Thule Culture inuit in the early 14th century. (Photo by Bjarne Grønnow, 2016) 
© B. Grønnow
The archaeological team of the NOW Project excavated an activity area in front of a ‘qassi’ – a men’s house – at the Nuulliit peninsula. The investigations showed that the site was established by a group of Thule Culture inuit in the early 14th century. (Photo by Bjarne Grønnow, 2016) © B. Grønnow

By Bjarne Grønnow.

The North Water (NOW) between the Thule area and Ellesmere Island in the High Arctic is an open water area all year – a polynya. Nutrient-rich sea-currents create an ‘oasis’ with an abundance of prey for hunters, and these rich living resources have formed the basis for human subsistence for millennia. The future of the hunting community is, however, uncertain. The sea ice in the fjords and around the polynya is unstable resulting in difficult access to the marine game and changed sledge routes. Political constrains like fixed quota on the hunting of certain large game like walrus and narwhal is also affecting the subsistence basis of the inughuit, the native population in Avanersuaq.

The interdisciplinary research of the NOW project is aimed at charting the interaction between game and humans in the North Water area in a long term perspective. The biggest and the smallest game, walrus and little auks (the smallest of sea birds that live in huge flocks in the Thule area), both of which are important bulk resources, have been tracked. Using GPS with camera, twenty hunters have mapped their routes and catches during a year, and from these data we have seen how the activities of the different hunting seasons relate to the distribution and stability of the sea ice around the polynya, the distribution of hunted animals as well as new resources like the Greenland halibut, that can generate cash income.

Analyses of historical sources related to the Thule Trading Station from 1910 – 53 have also been included in the research program. Income from trading fox fur and the ‘safety net’ of the station attracted people and this influenced the settlement pattern of the inughuit. Apart from this, the hunting economy was based on a seasonal cycle that provided plenty of walrus and seal meat and blubber, which could be stored for the ‘meagre’ winter season. This storage economy was a precondition for survival in the High Arctic Thule area.

The project’s archaeological investigations included excavations of the Nuulliit settlement site from the 14thcentury AD, when bowhead whales were a prime game for the earliest inuit, who migrated from Alaska via Canada to the North Water area. The meat and blubber from these huge whales as well as walrus, narwhal and seal provided a rich subsistence basis. The Nuulliit settlement consisted of several single family winter houses with turf and stone walls and a single large ‘qassi’, which according to historical and oral sources was a ‘men’s house’ where the strategy for whale hunting was discussed among the hunters of the settlement, led by an ‘umialik’, a whale boat owner and captain. The ‘qassi’ also served as a festival house for the settlement. The excavations show that maintaining hunting equipment and tool-making took place in front of this large house. The site was a link in a long-distance trading network where knives, harpoon blades and needles made of meteoric iron from the Savissivik meteorite was exchanged. This meteorite situated about 150 km from the site was the only natural source of iron in the entire eastern Arctic.

The interdisciplinary project has shown how the hunting community of the North Water area has always been both adaptable and strategic in a world of constantly changing environments, resources and political parameters. This small society possess a resilience and ingenuity that future generations can built on.

Bjarne Grønnow is research professor and dr. phil. in Arctic archaeology at the Department of Modern History and World Cultures at the National Museum of Denmark. He has conducted several interdisciplinary research project in Greenland focused on subsistence and hunting strategies, settlement patterns as well as Arctic pioneer societies and migrations in a long term perspective. Read more about the NOW project on the following home page, where also references to the publications of the project can be found: www.now.ku.dk.

A selection of recent publications:

  • Grønnow, Bjarne; Appelt, Martin; Odgaard, Ulla 2014. In the Light of Blubber: The Earliest Stone Lamps in Greenland and Beyond. – In: Gulløv, Hans Christian (ed.): Northern Worlds. Landscapes, interactions and dynamics. – Publications from the National Museum. Studies in Archaeology and History, Vol. 22: 403-422.
  • Grønnow, Bjarne 2016. Living at a High Arctic Polynya: Inughuit Settlement and Subsistence around the North Water during the Thule Station Period, 1910–53. – Arctic 69, Suppl. 1: 1 – 15.
  • Grønnow, Bjarne, 2017. The Frozen Saqqaq Sites of Disko Bay, West Greenland. Qeqertasussuk and Qajaa (2400 – 900 BC). Studies of Saqqaq Material Culture in an Eastern Arctic Perspective. – Meddelelser om Grønland/Monographs on Greenland, Man & Society, Vol. 356: 490.
  • Hastrup, Kirsten; Grønnow, Bjarne; Mosbech, Anders (eds.) 2018. The North Water: Interdisciplinary studies of a High Arctic polynya under transformation. – Ambio 47 (Supplement 2), Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences & Springer: 159 – 310.
© Bjarne Grønnow.