Arctic Small Tool Tradition

In the 1950s, archaeologists working independently in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland discovered evidence of the earliest peoples to occupy the coast and islands of Arctic North America. At Cape Denbigh, on the east side of Alaska's Norton Sound, Louis Giddings identified and named the Denbigh Flint complex. In northern Canada, William Taylor, Moreau Maxwell, and Elmer Harp identified sites thought to be earlier than the Dorset culture. They called the culture there Pre-Dorset. At Independence Fjord in northern Greenland, Eigil Knuth identified Independence culture, later termed Independence I following the discovery of the more recent and clearly descendant culture, Independence II; and in western Greenland, J0rgen Meldgaard reported on the Saqqaq culture. The striking similarities in the stone tools of these cultures led William Irving to suggest that they were members of the same cultural tradition, which he aptly termed Arctic Small Tool (ASTt). Current research suggests that these cultures all date to roughly 4200 years ago, with Denbigh possibly a little older. Most researchers regard the members of the ASTt as the first Eskimolike cultures. For this reason, they refer to them as "Paleo-Eskimo" (literally "Old Eskimo").

Cultures of the ASTt are known for their distinctive toolkits and architecture. Stone tools are typically very small and delicately flaked from high-quality raw materials. Characteristic tool types include bipoints, triangular harpoon tips, a variety of mitten-shaped burins, gravers made from retouched burin spalls, microblades, thumbnail scrapers made on thick flakes, and inset sideblades. Organic tools are only rarely preserved in early ASTt sites.

During the early ASTt, the emphasis seems to have been on mobility and portability. Permanent dwellings such as the Neo-Eskimo semisubterranean sod house were not known in Arctic Canada and Greenland until around 2500 years ago. Even in winter, early ASTt people seem to have lived in tents or snow houses. ASTt architecture is also very distinctive. ASTt dwellings were skin tents, roughly round in shape and typically bisected by two parallel rows of cobbles set on the ground roughly 50 cm apart and running down the center. Termed "axial" or "mid-passage" structures, these rows typically straddle a small hearth made from rocks and divide the space within the dwelling into areas where different domestic activities such as sewing, game processing, and construction and repair of tools were conducted. In forested areas, for example, at Onion Portage on Alaska's Kobuk River, wooden poles were substituted for stone. Several early Dorset sites have produced snow knives, suggesting that houses built from blocks of snow ("igloos") may have originated in the ASTt.

Cultures of the ASTt are thought to have their origins in the Siberian Neolithic, but archaeological collections from the western side of Bering Strait showing clear relationships with the ASTt have not yet been reported. ASTt sites have been found from the Alaska Peninsula to northern Greenland in some of the richest as well as most impoverished environments in the North American Arctic. In Alaska, sites are most commonly found north of the Kobuk River. In Canada, ASTt people lived north of the treeline—in the Barrenlands, Arctic Archipelago, and along the Labrador coast. Greenlandic sites are found along the narrow strip of land separating the ocean from the great inland ice sheet. Some are on the coast, while others are a little way inland.

ASTt people were hunters who harvested and ate what was available where they lived, and chose to live where game could be found. In some areas, they focused on terrestrial resources, taking advantage of migrating caribou as well as secondary species such as small mammals and fish, which formed an economic safety net. ASTt people were also the first North Americans to adapt to year-round life on the Arctic coast, including the frozen oceans of the far north. There they took seals, walrus, and pelagic waterfowl in great numbers, and even caught deep-water fish, including cod. In contrast to more recent Neo-Eskimo peoples, they do not appear to have participated in communal hunting activities requiring large numbers of people such as pursuing large baleen whales. In western Greenland where Bjarne Gr0nnow excavated Qeqertasussuk, a frozen 4200-year-old ASTt site, 45 different species of animals were found in a trash midden. Plants probably played a relatively minor role in the ASTt diet.

What became of ASTt people? The broad outlines of the prehistory of the Eastern Arctic—Canada and Greenland—are relatively straightforward. Early ASTt peoples (Pre-Dorset, Independence I, and Saqqaq) arrived there from the west approximately 4200 years ago. Their tools, houses, and settlement patterns began


to change fairly rapidly after 3000 years ago. The result was Dorset culture, although of course the distinction between the last Pre-Dorset, Saqqaq, or Independence I person and first Dorset is an arbitrary one, and one that would have eluded the people in question. Most archaeologists still consider Dorset to be the last culture of the ASTt, and it disappeared around AD 1400, shortly after the Thule culture—the ancestors of modern Inuit—arrived in the Eastern Arctic from Alaska. In many ways, we know far more about the later Dorset culture than about their early ASTt ancestors because their sites are more numerous and often yield animal bones and objects of wood, antler, and ivory in addition to stone tools.

In contrast to the Eastern Arctic, the culture history and historical relationships between Alaskan cultures from this time are less certain. Few Denbigh Flint complex sites have been reliably dated, and while most archaeologists agree that Denbigh gave rise to the Choris culture around 3600 years ago in northern and northwestern Alaska, there is little consensus about the relationship between Choris and subsequent Norton and Ipiutak peoples. Many archaeologists believe that Norton culture is part of a different tradition, and that the subsequent history of humans in the Western Arctic owes more to the Norton tradition and continued influences from Siberia than it does to the ASTt.

Daniel Odess

See also Choris Culture; Denbigh Flint Culture; Independence Culture; Pre-Dorset Culture; Saqqaq Culture

Further Reading

Cox, Steven L., "Palaeo-Eskimo occupations of the North Labrador Coast." Arctic Anthropology, 15(2) (1978): 96-118

Giddings, J. Louis, The Archaeology of Cape Denbigh,

Providence: Brown University Press, 1964 Gr0nnow, Bjarne, "Prehistory in permafrost: investigations at the Saqqaq Site, Qeqertasussuk, Disco Bay, West Greenland." Journal of Danish Prehistory, 7 (1988): 24-39

- (editor), The Paleo-Eskimo Cultures of Greenland,

Copenhagen: Danish Polar Center, 1996 LeBlanc, Sylvie and Murielle Nagy (guest editors), "Palaeoeskimo Architecture/Architecture paléoesquimaude." Études/Inuit/Studies, 27(1-2) (2003) McGhee, Robert, Ancient People of the Arctic, Vancouver: UBC Press, 1996

Maxwell, Moreau S., Prehistory of the Eastern Arctic, New

York: Academic Press, 1985 Schledermann, Peter, Crossroads to Greenland, Komatik Series 2, Calgary: Arctic Institute of North America, 1990

-, Voices in Stone, Komatik Series 5, Calgary: Arctic

Institute of North America, 1996 Taylor Jr., William E., The Arnapik and Tyara Sites: An Archaeological Study of Dorset Culture Origins, Society for American Archaeology Memoir 22, 1968

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