Air photo of the Iqaluktuuq region, between Ferguson Lake and Wellington Bay. Important occupation sites on both sides of the river extend back over 3,000 years.
From 1999 to 2010, the Pitquhirnikkut Ilihautiniq / Kitikmeot Heritage Society and the University of Toronto collaborated on a project combining traditional knowledge and archaeology at Iqaluktuuq, near Cambridge Bay. Iqaluktuuq is a river valley remembered by Elders as a special place in the landscape – every summer it had a huge run of Arctic char, and every fall large numbers of caribou crossed the river on their way south. Over the project’s 12 years, teams of southern and Inuinnait archaeologists studied large and important sites spanning over 3,000 years of the region’s ancient history.
The cultural history of Iqaluktuuq is divided into several periods. For the past 750 years, Iqaluktuuq was inhabited by Inuit, including their early ancestors who are known as “Thule Inuit”. Before Inuit, the land was occupied by very different people whom Inuit knew as “Tuniit”, who first arrived in the region over 4000 years ago. Archaeologists call Tuniit by several names, with later Tuniit called Dorset, and the most ancient Tuniit known as Pre-Dorset. Through elders’ knowledge, and archaeology, we can begin to understand something about how these ancient people lived.
MODERN INUIT — 1500 AD - TODAY
Iqaluktuuq was a crucially important place for Inuit. Known for its caribou crossings and char, many Inuit spent much of the summer and fall here. During the summer char run, the people positioned themselves along the banks of the River, spearing char with kakivait (three-pronged fish spears), and stored char in stone caches (qingniit). In the fall, caribou were hunted with the use of long drive lines of Inuksuit which led to shooting pits (talut). Early in the winter, Inuit moved out onto the sea ice to hunt seals, but returned to Iqaluktuuq the following spring.
THULE INUIT — 1250 AD - 1500 AD
About 750 years ago, early Thule Inuit arrived at Iqaluktuuq, after migrating from Alaska in the west. They built large stone houses at the Bell site, with deep entrance tunnels and separate kitchen rooms. The deep archaeological deposits of animal bones and artifacts at this site show us that Thule Inuit led a comfortable, settled life here, depending on stored caribou and char to last them through the winter. Their tools were finely made and complex, and clearly link them to modern Inuit.
LATE DORSET — 800 AD - 1250 AD
When Thule Inuit first arrived at Iqaluktuuq, they probably met Late Dorset people, who Inuit call Tuniit. Tuniit were very different from Inuit, and shortly after the two societies met, Tuniit disappeared from the area. However, they left several large sites, including the largest summer gathering site in all of Nunavut. This site contains three “longhouses” built of boulders, as well as 17 hearth rows. Late Dorset houses were not as large as Thule, but were dug into the surrounding earth to add warmth. Dorset people are famous for their artwork, and several examples have been recovered from the Late Dorset period at Iqaluktuuq.
EARLY/MIDDLE DORSET — 500 BC - 800 AD
Early Dorset people came to Iqaluktuuq around 500 BC, probably arriving from the east. They are the first people to build deep cold-season houses, and to take advantage of the arctic char at Iqalukuuq. Several large sites show that they successfully hunted caribou and fished for char. We have collected many tools from this period, including harpoon heads, sewing needles, and very small stone cutting tools known as microblades.
PRE-DORSET — 1800 - 500 BC
The earliest settlement of Iqaluktuuq was by Pre-Dorset people around 1800 BC (almost 4000 years ago). At this time, Iqaluktuuq was not yet a river – sea levels were much higher, and Pre-Dorset people settled on a series of small islands where they hunted seals and caribou. Pre-Dorset people left thousands of stone tools which they manufactured while living at these sites. We have not found any Pre-Dorset living structures, although they must have lived in skin tents for much of the year.