by Roderick Conway Morris

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British Library
First Communication with the Natives of Prince Regent's Bay by John Sakeouse, 1891

How to love a cold climate

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 7 February 2021


The Arctic was the last part of the planet to be settled by humans. The first pioneers to penetrate these forbidding regions of the frozen north of what is now Siberia did so at least 32,000 years ago, but it was not until 14,000 years ago that some crossed to Alaska and the New World and not until 5,000 years ago that they reached the eastern Canadian and Greenlandic Arctic.

Defined by the sun's remaining above or below the horizon for 24 hours, during the summer and winter solstices respectively, the Arctic also sees the most extreme annual variations in climate, ranging from -40°C to +30°C. It is now divided between eight nations, stretching from Russia through Canada and Greenland to Finland. Around 4 million people inhabit these regions, about 10% of the Indigenous Arctic peoples belonging to more than 40 ethnic groups.

The traditional livelihoods of these extraordinarily resourceful communities and their ancient cultures are now among the most threatened on earth, largely as a result of global warming, so the British Museum's fascinating 'Arctic: Culture and Climate' exhibition, accompanied by an attractive book, is timely. The show and publication present a splendid array of colourful traditional clothing, archaeological finds, historic paintings, prints and contemporary photographs, artefacts and art works.

Few peoples around the globe are so self-sufficient and still rely so heavily on the complex set of skills mastered by their ancestors millennia ago. Indeed, it was above all sewing skills, principally the preserve of women, that made it possible for humans to live and thrive in such challenging environments. That this mastery stretched back over 30,000 years is now attested by finely-made bone needles which, ironically, have now come to the light as the result of ice melting, revealing new archeological sites.

Expertly tailored clothing, allowing for easy and comfortable movement, whether made of reindeer hides among the nomadic herders of Siberia and Lapland or of sealskin and caribou among the Inuit of Greenland and Canada, not to mention robustly sewn tents and sleeping-bags, were essential to withstand Arctic conditions.

Then as now when an Inuit hunter sets forth he is mindful of his need not only to feed but also to clothe his wife and family. The hunters themselves sometimes need to process skins on the spot: some juvenile seal skins destined for clothing must be butchered promptly, carefully washed in saltwater and folded neatly with the fur side out to prevent the pelt drying out and staining on the journey home.

The use of skins depends on their age and the seasons. Children's clothes need to be lightweight and are made from young animals; small seals are good for flexible mittens, adult male seals for boot soles. For the ruffs around parka hoods the hunter will have to find wolverine fur because this throws off water and prevents moisture freezing into ice particles.

Some sewing techniques are amazingly precise: to attach soles to an upper seal-fur legging seamstresses make waterproof stitching by only partially piercing the hide to avoid making holes through the skin that could leak. Other refinements of clothing include the double-thumb kayaking mittens found in Greenland so that when putting them back on the hunter does not waste precious time having to distinguish between left and right. Also from Greenland is a Kalaallit sealskin suit from the 1800s, like an old-fashioned deep-sea diving suit, waterproofed with seal oil, that enabled intrepid hunters to jump onto the backs of sleeping whales to harpoon them. The suit could also be inflated through a button on the chest to provide warmth and buoyancy.

From the late 10th century onwards the adventurous Norsemen that established settlements in Greenland certainly encountered the Inuit, but the first properly documented contacts did not occur until over five hundred years later. The English merchant and privateer Sir Martin Frobisher made three exploratory voyages to Greenland in the 1570s in search of the legendary North-West Passage. However, when five of Frobisher's men went missing he blamed an Inuit guide for kidnapping them (although, according to Inuit oral tradition, they had deserted). On his second voyage Frobisher again came into conflict the Inuit, killing, wounding and capturing several of them. He took a man, woman and her infant child back to England to present to Queen Elizabeth, but all three became ill and died before they could be taken to court.

By the early 1700s commercial whalers were frequent visitors to these seas and also cultivated mutually beneficial trading relations with the Inuit. One of these whaling ships returned to Scotland with a 19-year-old Kalaallit from Greenland, who became known as John Sakeouse (1797-1819), along with his kayak. While his demonstrations of his kayaking skills drew large crowds, he also manifested linguistic and artistic talents and trained to draw and paint.

In 1818 Sakeouse accompanied an Admiralty expedition led by Sir John Ross in search of the North-West Passage and proved invaluable as an interpreter. An example of his artistry is displayed in an illustration, 'First Communication with the Natives of Prince Regent's Bay', printed in Ross's account of the voyage in 1819.

However, on a subsequent expedition to Baffin Bay between 1821 and 1823, led by Ross's Lieutenant William Edward Parry, the wrath of friendly local shaman was incurred when Parry accused him of theft and had him flogged. In revenge, the shaman placed a terrible curse on Parry and his ships, so potent that, according to local lore, the bay where they were anchored subsequently iced up and remained impenetrable to Europeans for a hundred years.

The story of Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic has been one of continual adaptation. Archaeological evidence from Zhokhov Island in the far north of Siberia provides evidence that dogs were domesticated there as a distinct breed from wolves by 9,000 years ago. Indeed, two types were raised: one for pulling sledges and larger beasts for hunting polar bears. Snow spectacles, with narrow slits to filter light, often vital to withstand the blinding reflections of the sun on snow, ice and water during summer in the High Arctic, were also developed millennia ago.

Nor has the climate of the region been stable over time. Humans could not begin to inhabit the eastern Canadian and Greenlandic Arctic until about 5,000 years ago, as the area until then was entirely covered with an ice sheet hundreds of feet thick. It was a certain degree of global warming that opened up this region for habitation. Nonetheless, these first settlers were not the ancestors of the Inuit there today, the earlier population having apparently been displaced or having simply died out.

The eastern Canadian and Greenlandic Inuit of today are the descendants of a new migration from Siberia sometime between 1200 and 1300. Even their hold on the territory was put under pressure during the Little Ice Age between 1600 and 1850. They had once been highly skilled whalers but encroaching sea ice put these out of reach, obliging them to turn to fishing and hunting smaller marine mammals such as seals and caribou.

So, the inhabitants of the Arctic are no strangers to climate change. However, the phenomenon as they are experiencing it today is unprecedented in its rapidity and implications for their traditional ways of life. Sea ice that has endured for more than 100,000 years is melting and could be gone entirely in fifty years time. In 2018 the mid-winter temperatures at the North Pole were above zero and it is predicted that by 2050 temperatures in the Arctic will have risen by +4°C.

Some Inuit have already been adapting, for example, by increasingly taking to the water and doing more hunting by boat. But at the same time anti-fur campaigners in the West are making it ever more difficult for them to make a living, as they have done for thousands of years, by trading in furs.

In the past, Arctic Peoples' artistic skills have been largely devoted to adorning their clothes and footwear and the objects of their everyday lives, but in recent times they have been creating art works blending traditional craft skills, such as carving, with fine art media.

There are a number of striking pieces in the exhibition and illustrated in the book, such as the delicate and suggestive 'Carved Figure of a Caribou by George Flowers' (1924-1998); an atmospheric coloured stencil-drawing, 'There's Another One', and a linocut print, 'Hunter's Dream', both by Andrew Qappik (born in 1964); and 'Nunavut Qajanartuk' (Our Beautiful Land) by the woman artist Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013), celebrating the harmonious cycle of the seasons and the age-old activities associated with them. This work was made in 1992 to commemorate the founding of Nunavut as Canada's newest province, which finally became a fully fledged reality in 1999, with its own independent Inuit-run provincial government.

Arctic: Culture and Climate; British Museum, London; 22 October 2020 - 21 February 2021 (with period of closure due to Covid); Arctic: Culture and Climate edited by Amber Lincoln, Jago Cooper and Jan Peter Laurens Loovers British Museum/Thames&Hudson (£35)

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023