The Tunit, Lost People of the North
That night had the news come of Daikos’ fall, and of the advance of the Inutos; squat, hellish, yellow fiends who five years ago appeared out of the unknown west to ravage the confines of our kingdom, and finally to besiege our towns. — “Polaris“, H.P. Lovecraft
It didn’t happen like that, even putting aside Lovecraft’s typical-for-his-era xenophobia, but walk the pebbly beaches of Arctic Canada and you’ll find artifacts. With little rain-driven erosion and next to no vegetation, they’re plain to see even if they’re hundreds of years old. Most belong to the Inuit, but some are more darkly patinated with age than them, different in size, materials, and decorative tradition. They were a mystery until after World War II when the Arctic north (not just in Canada, but in Alaska and Greenland too) was opened up by aircraft and worries about Russian ballistic missiles coming over the pole. Since then archaeologists have pieced together the story of the Tunit, the vanished people who were the first to learn how to live in one of Earth’s most forbidding lands.
The first hints that there was once an ancient culture in Canada’s north came from the Inuit who have replaced them. Until modern times they used boulder weirs and caribou channels for hunting, and Inuit folklore says they’d been build built another people whom they called the Tunit. The Tunit themselves appeared in some stories, peaceful giants who would interact with the Inuit for a while before leaving or being driven away into the icy wilderness. Many cultures have stories of the people who come before them; the Irish have their Fir Bolg and Tuatha Dé Danann, the Hawaiians their Menehune. In the particular case of the Inuit, though, the region’s older artifacts suggested there might be something to the story.
The Inuit’s predecessors were definitively proven to be something other than their own ancestors by discoveries at Independence Fjord, in the far northeast corner of Greenland at more than 80°N. The Inuit are known to have migrated into the area sometime around 1300 AD; these remains were nearly 4,000 years older. Descriptions of Independence Fjord’s vanished settlers were first published in 1911, and in 1925 Diamond Jenness proposed an earlier culture in the area of Cape Dorset on Baffin Island, but the post-WWII boom led to other discoveries further west that connected the two and revealed the history of the Tunit.
Like other native Americans, the Tunit originated in northeast Asia, though they crossed to the Americas long after the two previous bursts of colonization that had filled the continents from Tierra del Fuego to the tree line of Hudson Bay and the Northwest Territories. The high latitude parts of North America were uninhabitable without the right technology, and it was people on the Siberian coast of the Chukchi Sea who first developed it about 3000 BC. Among several other innovations they had the bow and arrow—which didn’t arrive in northeast Asia until after the previous sets of people to colonize the Americas had already left. There’s actually a distinct chance that it was the proto-Tunit who introduced the bow to all other people in the Americas. The early Tunit began interacting with the Maritime Archaic culture of Labrador around 2000 BC, and North American evidence of bows tends to get younger as one moves away from the northeast. Proponents of the opposing theory that the bow was independently invented in the New World point to the afore-mentioned kindness of Arctic environments to artifacts, though, and believe that the oldest bows are only found in the northeast because that’s where wood won’t decay over time.
Regardless of what happened, armed with their Asian bows the proto-Tunit could live in the far North hunting muskox. Though they were the first people to successfully colonize the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, their life was precarious. One estimate is that there were just two to six thousand people north of the tree line in Canada and Greenland—an area roughly the size of Western Europe.
The “true” Tunit encountered by the Inuit developed from these people. Starting around the 20th century BC, the Canadian Arctic (as well as much of the North Atlantic region) started getting colder and drier. The temperature rebounded for a little while at mid-millennium, but dipped again around 1000 BC. For agricultural communities this was a disaster, and for the proto-Tunit it was too—at least at first. Marginal settlements like Independence Fjord were abandoned, and artifacts from that time are only found in areas that were relatively rich and protected from the weather. But over the centuries the Tunit developed techniques for hunting on the extended sea ice that now surrounded their homes. Most notably, they stopped making bows and focused on harpoons for attacking sea mammals—though it’s an open question whether this was a case of deliberate abandonment or if it was, in a population possibly as low as 1000 at its nadir, due to the accidental extinction of the few who could make them.
The interface between sea and ice is rich in wildlife when compared to open arctic water, and the new skills and equipment the Tunit developed actually increased their population despite the climate taking a turn for the worse. By 900 BC the last pre-Inuit people, what archaeologists call the Dorset Culture, had developed. They built sod and stone longhouses (the remains of which greatly confused and excited archaeologists of the late 19th century who were looking for Viking colonies), and started a mini-Iron Age based entirely on chips off the Cape York Meteorite. There’s even a little bit of evidence that they traded with the Greenlandic Norse—small pieces of smelted copper (as opposed to native copper from the Coppermine River) have been found in two widely separated Dorset sites.
Then the climate changed again and another people came from the west. The Inuit seem to have developed on the south coast of Alaska, where they learned how to hunt whales in open waters. From there they gradually worked their way to the Alaskan North Slope as well as the arctic side of the Chukchi Peninsula in Siberia. When the Medieval Warm Period began, the solid coastal ice on which the Tunit depended melted into open waters that favored Inuit hunting methods. On top of that, the Alaskan Inuit had the advantage of being connected to the cultures of Siberia. They could trade for iron, they had composite bows (and so better than even the ones abandoned by the Tunit), and they had slat armor of wood and bone made on an Asian model. Worse, they came from where there was some contact between the Old World and the New, so they may have brought one or two Eurasian diseases with them. It wouldn’t have produced the persistent epidemics of post-Columbian times, but the Tunit were few and close to the brink even when things were good. The Inuit exploded eastward, colonizing over a hundred degrees of longitude—some three thousand kilometers—in just five hundred years.
Dorset Culture archaeological sites disappear by about 1500, which is not coincidentally the time when the Inuit reached their easternmost limits in Greenland. Even so, the Tunit may not have disappeared entirely until the beginning of the 20th century. In 1824 the HMS Griper, one of the British ships assigned to exploring the Northwest Passage, came across a group of natives on the islands straddling Fisher Strait at the head of Hudson Bay. These Sagdlirmiut, as they were called, were different in language and hunting technique from most Inuit. They were just a curiosity until the Dorset Culture was recognized, but by then it was too late to study them properly–the last of them had died from influenza in the winter of 1902-1903. There’s enough left of their physical remains, though, to examine their mitochondrial DNA, as well as that of older Dorset bodies and the genetically distinctive modern Inuit. A 2001 study suggests that the Sagdlirmiut were an almost equal mix of the two peoples.