Arctic Chronology



Cultural Chronology in North American and Greenlandic Arctic.
With a few exceptions, this table focuses primarily on Palaeoeskimo and Neoeskimo cultural groups. Earlier versions were commented upon by Max Friesen, Owen Mason, and Mikkel Sørensen to whom we are grateful. Final decisions and interpretations with regards to the chronology table were undertaken by Avataq archaeologists and do not necessarily reflect those of the above reviewers. According to Desrosiers (2009) the situation in Low Arctic of Nunavut and Central/Northern Labrador is similar to Nunavik with regards to the end of the Early Palaeoeskimo and beginning of the Late Palaeoeskimo periods. According to Grønnow and Sørensen (2006), the Greenlandic Dorset is associated with the Late Palaeoeskimo period. The same authors state that the High Arctic “North Water” region was occupied from 2500 BC – 0 BC, by different cultural groups. These include: Independence I, Predorset, Saqqaq, and Late Predorset/Transitional Canadian Dorset as well as Greenlandic Dorset. In addition, they suggest that the Independence I period should be from 2500 BC to 1900 BC.

To cite this document:
Avataq Cultural Institute, 2011, Arctic Chronology, source:


Palaeoeskimo and Neoeskimo

The terms “Paleo-Eskimo” and “Neo-Eskimo” in their original form were introduced by anthropologist H.P. Steensby nearly a century ago to address the question of the origins of the Inuit. Steensby defined the Palaeoeskimos as an Amerindian group originating from the Barren Grounds (central region of the Canadian Sub-Arctic) that adapted progressively to the Arctic coast in the area of Coronation Gulf. This group then migrated eastward as far as Greenland, and westward as far as Alaska. At the limit of their westward migration, the Palaeoeskimos were influenced by Asiatic groups and transformed to Neoeskimos, focussing mainly on coastal resources. The selection of the prefixes “Palaeo” and “Neo” were derived from the terms Palaeolithic (the period of chipped stone tools) and Neolithic (the period of polished stone tools) used to describe European prehistory.

Today, the term Palaeoeskimo applies to a group of ancient cultures from the Eastern Arctic: Pre-Dorset, Saqqaq, Independence I, Independence II, Groswater and Dorset. These cultures preceded the Neoeskimos, which applies to a single culture – the Thule, and their direct descendents, the Inuit. The generally accepted theory is that the Arctic was populated inititally by Palaeoeskimos who developed in the region of Eastern Siberia and the Alaskan coasts before migrating eastward through the Arctic from Alaska as far as Greenland about 4500 years ago. The Neoeskimos also developed in these same coastal regions before migrating east through the Arctic a little less than 1000 years ago, replacing the Paleoeskimo groups. The implications of this replacement process have been the subject of years of vigorous debate among archaeologists. Some believe that the Thule people lived in parallel with the Dorset people and eventually assimilated them; others believe the contrary, that the two groups never encountered each other, but that the Dorset people disappeared from the region many decades before the arrival of Thule. All evidence to date suggests that this debate will continue! But archaeologists agree that the Neoeskimo culture led with perfect continuity to the Inuit who today inhabit the Canadian Arctic, Alaska and Greenland.

Palaeoeskimos are further divided into Early Palaeoeskimos and Late Palaeoeskimos. The Early Palaeoeskimos of the Eastern Arctic include the following archaeological cultures: Pre-Dorset, Saqqaq, Independence I, Independence II and Groswater as well as the Early Dorset who, at least in Nunavik, correspond with the end of the Early Palaeoeskimo occupation (i.e., the equivalent of the Labrador Groswater or the Independence II sites in the High Arctic). In the West, the Denbigh culture was more or less contemporary with the Early Palaeoeskimos. These groups were definitely connected, but for the moment, the relationship with the Alaskan group is hard to determine with precision. For a long time, it has been assumed that the Early Palaeoeskimos came from Alaska and that the Denbigh were the presumed ancestors. As for the Late Palaeoeskimos, they include a single cultural manifestation: Dorset. However, the link between the Dorset culture and the earlier cultures in various parts of the Eastern Arctic remains to be defined. The conventional hypothesis that the Dorset people derived directly from the early Palaeoeskimo populations may not necessarily be exact.

Archaeological research tells us that the Early and Late Palaeoeskimos were characterized by a technology that involved mainly the working of hard rocks (chert, quartz, quartzite and others), which they transformed into projectile tips and various piercing and cutting tools. The culture was also characterized by the working of organic materials such as ivory, bone and wood, which were transformed into handles for tools and projectiles, harpoon heads, or small tools such as needles. Other than tools, the Palaeoeskimos — especially the Dorsets — used organic materials to make objects representing human or animal figures that were characterized by, among other things, X-ray motifs (i.e., that reproduced the skeleton of the subject on the surface of an object) of unknown purpose, but which are often presumed to be of shamanic or shamanistic origin. The early Palaeoeskimos also produced objects that may be considered shamanistic, but never on the same scale as during the Dorset period, when this form of expression reached its peak.

The principal means of subsistence shifted from a preference on land mammals among the Early Palaeoeskimos (caribou in the southern limits of their range, muskox in the northern regions) to an almost total exploitation of marine resources among the later Palaeoeskimos. This food preference does not mean that they did not bother to hunt other types of animals when these were available.

To move around, the Early Palaeoeskimos used boats similar to kayaks, and the presence of dog remains at some archaeological sites suggest that they may also have used dogs for winter transport. It is often presumed that the later Palaeoeskimos or Dorset people abandoned these means of transport without replacing them with a new mode of transport. However, although this is the traditional view in Arctic archaeology, we have to ask whether the presence of remnants of small sleds at Dorset sites does not contradict this hypothesis, at least in part. (text : P. M. Desrosiers et Daniel Gendron)

The Arctic Small Tool Tradition

The term Arctic Small Tool tradition was first proposed in the late 1950s. Previously, only the Dorset culture was recognized as being older than the Thule. The discovery of chipped burins from Alaska to Greenland, coinciding with the development of radiometric methods, allowed archaeologists to define progressively the existence of different cultures older than the Dorset culture, notably the Pre-Dorset, Saqqaq, Independence, Denbigh (Alaska) and Groswater. These cultures, which comprised tools such as the chipped burin, were henceforth grouped together under the label of Arctic Small Tool tradition. However, given discoveries made in recent years in both the Eastern and Western Arctic, the relevance of this so-called tradition should perhaps be re-evaluated, or at least its definition should be updated. (text : P. M. Desrosiers et Daniel Gendron)


The term Pre-Dorset was used for the first time in 1954 by Albert Collins to describe all the cultures that preceded the Dorset culture in the Eastern Arctic. Today, the term Pre-Dorset is used to describe the culture that preceded the Dorset culture in the Low-Arctic of Nunavut, Nunavik and Labrador, and is also used generically to describe all early cultural manifestations in the Eastern Arctic (including Independence in the Far North and Saqqaq in central-west Greenland). In Nunavik, the generic Pre-Dorset covers the period extending from 3800 BP to 2500 BP. However, in the Eastern Arctic this period can stretch back as far as 4500 years.

Researchers are not all in agreement on the definition of the various subdivisions of the Pre-Dorset period. Gendron and Pinard (2000) have suggested subdividing the Pre-Dorset period in Nunavik into: Early, Middle, Late and Terminal Pre-Dorset.

The Pre-Dorset period is characterized by well-finished microlithic tools including burins, finely-chipped projectile points, drills, semi-circular lateral blades, side scrapers and retouched microblades.

Dwellings associated with this period were often bilobate and included axial features. The Pre-Dorset also used boulder fields to build semi-subterranean dwellings. Some sites may contain more than 200 such structures.

In Nunavik, Pre-Dorset hunted mainly caribou and other land species, but also some marine mammals, and they probably also fished and gathered various plants. (text : P. M. Desrosiers et Daniel Gendron)


The first time the expression “Cape Dorset Culture” was used was by Jenness in 1925. After studying mixed collections that came mostly from the Hudson Strait area, including Cape Dorset on Baffin Island, Jenness concluded that there had existed an earlier culture than the Thule. Certain researchers would contest this theory for years, even though the antiquity of Arctic cultures in Greenland had been recognized at the beginning of the 19th century.

Today, we use the term Dorset to designate a culture that, according to the common but now debated hypothesis, arose somewhere in Fox Basin, springing from an in situ development among the Pre-Dorset people. The Dorset culture existed mainly in the Low-Arctic of Nunavut, Nunavik, Labrador and Newfoundland.

In the 1950s, archaeologists proposed the existence of a Proto-Dorset, which would later be referred to as Early Dorset, on the basis of studies of sites in the region of Igloolik, Southampton Island, and the Tayara site in Salluit, Nunavik. Middle, Late and Terminal phases were later added to the Dorset subdivisions. In Nunavik, Early Dorset, which corresponds chronologically with the Middle Dorset, marks the beginning of the Late Palaeoeskimo period. (Desrosiers, et al. 2006). To avoid confusion in terminology, we speak now of Classic Dorset. However, the concept of Early Dorset, which was still in use in Nunavik until not long ago to designate certain sites that appeared to be more ancient, is now considered more as the final representation of the early Palaeoeskimo period.

The Dorset period is characterized mainly by microlithic tool-making and the use of diverse raw materials transformed by knapping, abrasion and grooving. These tools included triangular points with straight or concave bases, burin-like tool, end scrapers, semi-circular side scrapers, adzes, tanged microblades and different types of points and schist blades. The well-preserved condition of some Dorset sites has also allowed us to see how organic materials (bone, antler, ivory and wood) were worked, as well as various aspects of Dorset figurative representations. These figurines represent human or animal figures, and sometimes a human-animal combination, often decorated with X-ray motifs. Tools made from organic materials include harpoon heads, arrowheads, snow knives, sled runners, snow crampons and many other items. Dorset houses were mostly small tent rings that often included axial features, but there were also semi-subterranean dwellings that were probably winter houses, as well as structures similar to long houses. In general, these last structures were associated with periods when the Dorset families gathered and lived for a time under a single roof.

In Nunavik, the Dorset people preferentially hunted marine mammals except for large whales, but also small land mammals, caribou and migratory birds; they fished and gathered various species of plants.

Finally, certain Inuit legends evoke the Tuniit, who are said to have preceded the arrival of the Inuit in the Arctic. It is probable that this oral history refers to encounters between the Thule and Dorset people in Nunavik over 700 years ago. (text : P. M. Desrosiers et Daniel Gendron)


Danish researchers were the first to study and define this culture as a result of an important scientific expedition, The Fifth Thule Expedition, which took place in the 1920s. For a number of years, the members of this expedition traveled the Arctic from Greenland to Alaska. The word “Thule” derives from the area of the same name in the north of Greenland, where the research began.

The Thule Period is an archaeological culture linked to the direct ancestors of present-day Inuit. Thule culture extended throughout nearly the entire Arctic of North America and Greenland. The Thule people arrived in Nunavik about 700 or 800 years BP, bringing with them a new technology entirely different from Dorset technology. As a rule, archaeologists designate the Thule Period as extending up until the period of contact with Europeans. Although this serves a use in differentiating the archaeological culture and the one described in oral tradition from the historical culture as documented in writing, it is equally correct to speak of Inuit culture when discussing the Thule culture.

The Thule culture possessed a wider variety of tools than the Palaeoeskimos. Soft rocks such as schist (slate), and sometimes hard rocks, were chipped, grooved, and abraded to produce a variety of tools, notably points for harpoon heads, and semi-circular blades for women’s knives (ulu) or the pointed blades for men’s knives (savituinnaq). Thule technology is extremely diversified and ingenious for both stone and organic materials. For transportation, Thule had the large skin boat called an umiaq, as well as kayaks and dogsleds. In terms of habitation, it is the semi-subterranean dwellings with a tunnel entrance that attracted the attention of the first archaeologists in the Arctic. One of the principal characteristics of the Thule was the technical capacity to hunt large whales, even though for subsistence they also depended on small marine and land mammals as well as migratory birds; they also fished using hook, line, or fish-spear, gathered eggs from different species and various small fruits, and collected medicinal plants and seafood (mussels, crabs, and others). (text : P. M. Desrosiers)


The historical period started with the first contact with Europeans and Euro-Canadians. The period is linked with the installation of the trading posts. The first trading post in Nunavik was set up at Richmond Gulf in 1750. However, it was in the 19th century that trading posts progressively started to have an influence on the Inuit way of life. Finally it was only recently, in the 1950, that Inuit abandoned there nomadic way of life . (text : P. M. Desrosiers)