Sunday, February 15, 2009

Thule versus Norse?

CBC - the Nature of Things / Inuit Odyssey

Premiering On: Thursday February 12, 2009 at 8 pm on CBC-TV
Repeating On: Thursday February 26, 2009 at 10 pm ET/PT on CBC Newsworld
" Inuit Odyssey follows Canadian Arctic anthropologist Niobe Thompson as he takes us on a visually stunning journey across the North, tracing the origins of the modern Inuit. In a circumpolar expedition stretching from the ancient hearth of Thule culture in Siberia to the final battleground of the Thule and the Norse in Greenland, Inuit Odyssey explores the mysteries of the Thule conquest of the Arctic. Along the way, Thompson makes some startling new scientific discoveries and challenges our stereotypes of the "peaceful Eskimo" by shedding new light on the first meeting of Asiatic and European settlers in the New World. "

Image poached from the CBC web site

The CBC web site offers some commentary on the documentary and its production. It also features downloads for both a short trailer and even the full episode.

I watched the first airing of the program, almost by chance. (I generally find host David Suzuki pretty annoying). I did have some serious problems with the overall thesis that Thompson presents:
- Thule as iron workers
- Thule more war like that Norse Greenlanders
- Norse being driven out - rather than starved out

I just finished spending an hour writing the following critical review of these problems and sending it off to the CBC:

(to the producers of 'The Nature of Things' - Inuit Odyssey)

As the designer of the original living history program 'the Norse Encampment' at L'Anse aux Meadows NHSC, I watched your documentary with considerable interest. I was disappointed over two primary omissions, both critical (in my mind) to your overall thesis.

The first relates to iron. Since 2001, I have been deeply involved with experimental iron smelting, attempting to re-create the possible methods used by the Norse to convert primary bog iron ores into metallic iron. This is a considerable challenge, as the methods used during the Viking Age are basically a lost technology. The smelting of iron requires large volumes of charcoal, in our experiments typically 50 + kg consumed in the creation of a 3 kg iron bloom. Even more is required to take the spongy bloom of iron and consolidate it into working bars for the blacksmiths forge (which of course burns even more charcoal. No trees means no charcoal, which in turn means no iron production. The Norse Greenlanders themselves could not make their own iron despite their cultural skill with the material. Iron was the major import item from the Scandinavian homelands.
Now your documentary completely avoided this critical fact, limited iron use is not the same as primary iron production. The Thule may have used slivers of cold worked iron, imported from other peoples who where primary iron producers. The Thule lacked any understanding of the use of fire as it relates to iron, the primary way of shaping iron, much less creating it. There would only be two methods for the Thule to acquire iron : either through trade from those who did know the full range of iron working technology, or through accidental finds of meteoric iron.
Meteoric iron was known and used by the Thule in the high arctic. Even at best, it is a rare material, and finding it is absolutely dependant on chance. The Thule would just not 'expect' to be able to gather more simply by travelling further east. What they would know for certain is that a supply of iron was dependant on trade with others. Moving further away from your traditional trading partners, into lands largely empty of any people, over a period of several years, is just not a rational way to secure new trade routes. Those resident in the Arctic must be practical if they expect to survive.

I think the argument of the impact on the environment of the 'Medieval Warming' period is far more significant. Populations in Siberia must have moved northward, putting pressure on the Thule themselves. Expansion eastward is they most likely result, again because that region would have been seen as mainly empty, or at least so in the eyes of the Thule. An examination needs to be made of the resident Dorset people, and whether they in fact had already filled the ecological niche available in an area with quite limited resources. I was surprised more stress was not placed the the kind of sudden environmental disaster the Medieval Warming may have been to the high Arctic.

I have to completely disagree with the thesis that the Thule had a warrior tradition that exceeded that of the Norse. True, the Greenlanders of 1300 were 'not the men their grandfathers were'. Do not forget who those grandfathers were - the Vikings. The documentary makes a point of describing Erik the Red as a 'troublemaker who had been kicked out of two countries'. You did not mention that in both cases the stated cause was 'because of some killings'. While it is absolutely true that the Norse settlers of the 980's were not the same people who had raided extensively all over northern Europe, they are at best two generations removed from 150 years of that tradition. Farmers, yes, but tough farmers who grew up in a rough neighbourhood.

I'm afraid my own experience on working on such exhibits as Full Circle, First Contact has been that political correctness has served to elevate the technologies of the First Nations, while obscuring that of the Norse. The answer to the sinew backed compound bow is the shield wall - a combat method almost invented by the Norse, who did have the long bow in their own arsenal. Frankly, I would expect fighting between the Thule and Norse to come down to numbers, not weaponry. A metal tipped antler harpoon is just not a superior weapon against an iron axe.
All this is secondary to what I see as a major flaw in the 'search for iron' hypothesis : If the Thule knew that a supply of iron was only available through trade, why was their response to the first people who could supply that need open warfare?

The most important lesson of the collision between the Thule and the Norse was not expanded on with as much weight as it might have been. The conflict was most certainly an environmentally driven one. The Thule were certainly adaptable and masters at lifestyle suited to the conditions as they were changing in the region between Baffin Island and Greenland. The Norse Greenlanders however, were totally dependant on a livestock raising method that even in the ideal climate of the Medieval Maximum was just barely over marginal. There is certainly excellent evidence that the changes in condition in Greenland were quite sudden. The accumulating archaeological and other evidence is that this shift in climate was devastating to the Norse. When the grass for your sheep does not grow, you either abandon the farm or die. The Thule certainly had the advantage of being perfectly able (and willing) to follow the wild animals as these themselves shifted in response to climate changes.

A sobering message, and one so very important in light of what is happening in the Arctic right now. A fragile system, and one susceptible to sudden and catastrophic changes. The true historic lesson of the migration of the Thule may not be one about the triumph of suitable technologies, but one about the survival value of flexibility in changing times.

Curiously for me, the argument about war like Thule overpowering passive Norse is the exact OPPOSITE argument I had with Full Circle author Gwyn Dyer when we were both working on that exhibit. Gwyn had the opinion that there was not that much difference in practical terms between an arrow with a stone tip and one with an iron arrow head, at least against un-armoured targets - either would kill you stone dead. My counter to this was again the Norse use of shields and more importantly a shield wall. (I know from personal re-creation fighting that two men standing together with shields are at least worth three men working independently.) Part of the point was the understanding that neither groups would be 'combat trained' in the way most of us think of this. 'Hunters who were hostile' versus 'Farmers with attitude' more likely.

By the time of the 'Little Ice Age' climate reversal (most likely a catastrophic failure of the 'arctic conveyor' currents suddenly shifting and moving the warm Gulf Stream), the Norse Greenlanders were not the tough and extremely adaptable culture that the original Viking Age Icelandic settlers had been. As much as anything, it was this lack of an ability to quickly respond and to changing environmental conditions which killed them.

A sobering message indeed. With Canadians more and more a coddled North American Urban culture, I'm not putting much hope on our chances...

1 comment:

Albert A Rasch said...


Great synopsis and analysis! Looking forward to reading more!!!

Albert A Rasch
The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles
Proud Member of Outdoor Bloggers Summit
Southeast Regional OBS Coordinator


February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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