Research Article: Life around the North Water ecosystem: Natural and social drivers of change over a millennium

Date Published: March 8, 2018

Publisher: Springer Netherlands

Author(s): Kirsten Hastrup, Astrid Oberborbeck Andersen, Bjarne Grønnow, Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen.


The formation of the North Water in Smith Sound about 4500 years ago, as evidenced by the establishment of bird colonies and human presence, also initiated a long-term anthropogenic agent as part of this High Arctic ecosystem. Different epochs have influenced the human occupation in the area: immigration pulses from Canada and Alaska, trade with meteorite iron throughout the Arctic, introduction of new technologies by whalers and explorers, exploitation of resources by foreigners, political sequestration, export of fox and seal skins and later narwhal products, and recently fishing. Physical drivers in terms of weather and climate affecting the northern hemisphere also impact accessibility and productivity of the ecosystem, with cascading effects on social drivers, again acting back on the natural ecologies. Despite its apparent isolation, the ecosystem had and still has wide ranging spatial ramifications that extend beyond the High Arctic, and include human activity. The challenge is to determine what is internal and what is external to an ecosystem.

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Human life in the Thule Region, Northwest Greenland (Fig. 1), always depended on the North Water polynya and its ability to sustain predictable animal populations, which could be hunted by coastal communities. The relationship between the polynya and the people was not one of passive harvesting of whatever was available, but a dedicated attempt at exploiting particular species perceived as necessary or valuable within the social framework. This point of departure challenges easy notions of the ecosystem as a closed system of interdependence between species or between people and their resources.Fig. 1Map of the region dealt with in this article, with relevant place names. The ‘Thule Region’ referred to in the text, covers the coastline from Cape Melville to Inglefield Land where descendants of Thule Culture immigrants (from c. 1250 AD onwards) have lived as hunters. The marked area in Smith Sound shows the extension of the North Water

The Smith Sound ecosystem is of relatively recent origin, having emerged only after the end of the glacial retreat 8000 years ago, that gradually opened the Arctic seas and allowed wildlife and people to populate the area. Large little auk (Alle alle) colonies formed in the area some 4500 years ago (Mosbech et al. 2018); this presupposed that a polynya had formed creating productivity that could support copepods which eventually could sustain the little auk colonies (Davidson et al. 2018). The polynya offered conspicuous concentrations of marine game that could support the human migrations to the area as evidenced from the archaeological traces of the earliest human habitations in the region from about the same time as the arrival of the little auks (Grønnow 2017).

While traffic across Smith Sound was relatively frequent in the warm medieval period, it dwindled in the period from 17th to late 19th century—as did habitation in general during the cooling of the Little Ice Age as noted above. Norwegian Otto Sverdrup, on expedition in the High Arctic (1898–1902), found no living people in the Canadian High Arctic archipelago at all. He was deeply affected by the fact that he only found ruins, from the ‘time of the Eskimos’, suggesting that these people belonged to a distant past. The discovery underscored the unimaginable exposure to a hostile nature that would have been their plight. Sverdrup writes how they were “gripped by a strange feeling of abandonment and waste when seeing these ruins, telling us that even here humans have lived with their sorrows and pleasures like us” (Sverdrup 1903, II, pp. 275–276; our translation).

Human agency within the ecosystem and its interlocking temporalities is further illustrated by the arrival of two new groups of people in the Thule Region who had a major impact on the development of Inughuit life and outlook. They were European sailors and explorers, arriving from 1818 and onwards through the 19th century, among whom was John Ross, mentioned above, and a small group of Inuit Baffin-landers, arriving in the mid 1860s. Ross immediately began to speculate about the possibility of trade or an exchange of goods; for skins the newly discovered people could procure iron, wood, utensils, and later rifles and much more. (Ross 1819, pp. 119–120; Hastrup et al. 2018). The Baffin-landers were also to contribute vitally to the technologies of the inhabitants of Thule.

The Thule Station was geographically situated in the Middle district, and it gradually evolved into a social and political centre in an otherwise decentralised society, also, as it happened, hosting several scientific enterprises over the years. As a trading post, the station facilitated an exchange of local goods, mainly fox fur and eider down, for foreign commodities, guns, clothes, coffee, etc. Fox skin trade had a major economic significance in the entire period of the Thule Station (1910–1953) and beyond; fox skins were traded until 1963.

Within Greenland, the community living by Smith Sound is one of the most persistent hunting communities. There are many hunters in Greenland, and quite a few towns and settlements where hunting is still essential for the economy, but in the farthest north and on the east coast, hunting permeates social life and its seasonality to the core. The hunt still embraces the biggest marine mammals like narwhals, polar bear and walrus, deeply affecting the self-perception of the people (Born et al. 2011, 2017). The hunting activities are not only a matter of light or darkness, or of the actual presence of the prey, but also a matter of ‘the right time’ for this or that hunt—under normal conditions. However, due to the general seasonal upheaval what used to be the ‘right time’ can no longer be relied upon, and in the field one senses the restlessness of people, who cannot access the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) or the walrus at a time when hunting is permitted, due to the changing ice-conditions. The hunt still dominates the perception of whom they, the Inughuit, are, and it is unsettling if the hunt fails, or if there is not enough polar bear furs to make trousers for both seasoned hunters and novices.

There is nothing inevitable about social practices, including hunting, around Smith Sound. Nor is the development of the natural ecosystem simply mechanical. Human actions are never just behavioural responses to a shifty environment; they are deliberate actions, foregrounding some practices at the expense of others, and favouring some kinds of game over others. People hunt on the basis of particular visions of space and social value, in addition to the obvious need for food, and for materials needed for hunting equipment. The ecological space, within which the Inuit have operated since their arrival in the region, is likewise a far from stable framework for orientation. It is affected by changes in temperature and ice-cover, by shifting animal abundance, and by the arrival of new people with unprecedented explorative or commercial interests, tying the apparently isolated region up with expansive global interests and conditions.




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