Two thousand years ago, a new innovative culture emerged in the world, one which established large, wide-ranging settlements and networks of long distance trade. Between 500 and 1500 CE, this culture began to expand, developing new technologies which allowed it to move into other regions thousands of miles from its place of origin. Ultimately, these technological advancements allowed it to dominate and displace the native peoples who lived there. By 1000, it had establishing a place for itself in a new system of trans-Atlantic trade.
I speak not of Romans or Vikings but of the Inuit, who developed from the Old Bering Sea people two thousand years ago on the coast of Alaska. The Old Bering Sea people lived in large, year round settlements and established long-distance trading networks. They developed or acquired the bow and arrow as well as the means to hunt bowhead whales. Shortly thereafter, they began moving northeast, towards the Arctic shores of North America, displacing the Tuniit, an Arctic culture that predated them by hundreds of years. It is not clear what drew the Old Bering Sea people east, but evidence suggests that they were eager to acquire metal impliments brought by Norse peoples who began to occupy Greenland.
All of this information comes from Robert McGhee’s new book “The Last Imaginary Place: A Human History of the Arctic World.” McGhee’s Arctic is no wintery wasteland, but a dynamic place, the crossroads of many different cultures: Asian, American, and European. At 270 pages, McGhee can hardly be comprehensive. But he manages to tell his stories of Arctic history with an impressive cast of characters: Inuit, Tuniit, European, and Siberian.
One of the goals of McGhee’s analysis is to destroy the myths that still haunt our image of the Arctic and its peoples. For centuries, Europeans described the Inuit as the primitive children of nature, a timeless people who scratched out a living in the same manner as their stone-age ancestors did thousands of years before. In truth they had much in common with their European counterparts. They were expansionist, adaptive, and quick to exploit the resources of their environment.
McGhee also manages to link his broader points to personal experience. On the Inuit for example he states:
The realization that the Inuit are not a peripheral people was forced on my mind one night on the coast of Chukotka, as I climbed by myself over the remains of the ancient community at Ekven. A few kilometers up the coast, the low night-time sun was throwing an orange glow on the rocks of Cape Dezhneva, the most easterly point of Asia, and on Great Diomede Island halfway across the Bering Strait to Alaska. In the bright calm night I suddenly had the overwhelming sense that I was not standing at the distant margin of a world, the end of the earth, as far as one could travel from Europe. Instead I was standing at the very heart of another world, a nexus that for millenia had linked the peoples and cultures of Asia and America. It was a world in which many nations and cultures had flourished, among them the Inuit and their way of life.
This is a terrific book. I’ll be writing a more formal review of it soon for The Historian.