A millennium ago, Cornwallis Island was home to the ancestors of today’s Inuit. Things were very different then, the climate was warmer and the area was much richer with natural resources. It was an environment that allowed a people, today known as the Thule, to thrive in the region.
Archaeological evidence predating the Thule culture dates from 2000 B.C. to 1000 A.D. Archaeologists have termed the era Paleo-Eskimo, and it includes cultures known as Pre-Dorset, Independence I, Independence II and Dorset. The Thule culture that followed the Dorset has since been recognized as both the genetic and cultural ancestors of modern day Inuit. Knud Rasmussen and Therkel Mathiassen unearthed the first evidence of the Thule culture in Greenland in 1915. Since then, evidence of Thule presence has been found in several Arctic locations, including Resolute Bay where Henry Collins made his discoveries in 1949. Archeological findings in Resolute have included small tools, as well as evidence of nine homes once inhabited by the Thule people.
The Thule people originated in Alaska, but they quickly migrated across the Canadian Arctic and ultimately into Greenland. Their migration was made possible because of a warm climatic period that began in the region around 1000 A.D. Warming temperatures not only allowed travel, but it also created rich resource base that allowed the Thule population to thrive. In particular, the climate ensured optimal whale hunting conditions along the arctic coastline. During this period the Thule developed the necessary tools, including harpoons, kayaks and umiaks (boats made of animals skins), to take advantage of the large bowhead whale populations that occupied coastal waters. Bowhead whales provided an abundance of nutrient rich meat and other materials useful for thriving in the arctic. In addition to the tools specific to whale hunting, archeologists have also discovered other elements of a thriving material culture, including bows and arrows, snow goggles, and slate knives.
The finding of Thule homes has also provided significant insight into Thule living conditions and social patterns. While the Thule occupied hide tents in the summer, during the winter season homes were constructed of stone and whalebones. It is the remnants of these stone homes that have survived over time. Homes were oval-shaped and typically five metres wide - large enough to house a single family. The homes were kept warm through an air hole that trapped cold air and tunneled it downward in order to prevent it from entering the living quarters. Inside, the rear of the home featured a sleeping platform used to elevate the family and keep them close to the rising heat. The front of the home was a living area and a cooking space heated by an oil lamp. These stone homes show that during the winter months the Thule remained sedentary, surviving the winter on reserves of whale meat. Archaeologists believe that most communities consisted of about fifty people, and as groups grew larger they ultimately broke away into smaller units and resettled into new communities.
As temperatures cooled in AD 1200 the Thule were forced to dramatically alter their way of life. The coastlines where bowhead whale were hunted began to freeze over, forcing the Thule to rely more heavily on seal meat. In addition to dietary changes, the cooling climate also altered hunting patterns and hunting technologies. The ensuing changes in tools, housing, seasonal mobility and settlement patterns came to resemble what are now identified as traits of Inuit culture.
While Henry Collins completed his work in Resolute in 1955, anthropologists and archaeologists have continued to explore the area in the hopes of achieving greater insights into ancient Arctic life.