Arctic: culture and climate

Humans have been calling the Arctic home for tens of thousands of years. But over the millennia, changes in climate have repeatedly forced groups to adapt or make way for incomers bearing superior tools. Amber Lincoln and Jago Cooper told Current World Archaeology's Matthew Symonds about the archaeology of the circumpolar world.


Viewed from the south, the Arctic can seem almost impossibly forbidding. It is an ice world, where permafrost has created an expanse of tundra and taiga (coniferous forest) on land, while the North Pole itself lies on a vast sheet of pack ice, floating on the Arctic Ocean. The passing seasons are accompanied by extreme temperature shifts, with parts of Siberia and Canada plunging to −40°C in the winter months, before summer brings a balmy +35°C. Even familiar concepts of day and night break down once you reach the Arctic Circle. This line lies at 66.5°N: the point where an observer will experience at least 24 hours of both continual sunlight and darkness over the course of a year. The further north you venture, the longer these periods of light and dark endure, until you reach the North Pole, where the sun rises in March and does not set until September. When it appears once more, after months of night and twilight, the intensity of the light on freshly frozen surfaces can cause blindness.

This print by Kiliii Yüyan, called Umiaq and North Wind during Spring Whaling, gives a flavour of Arctic life. Its climate has shifted numerous times over the last 30,000 years, creating challenges and opportunities for human occupants. PHOTO: Kiliii Yüyan.

To see this as simply a harsh and difficult world, though, is to miss the opportunities that mastering the environment presents. While those living far from the Arctic Circle often view snow and ice as a hindrance to travel, it offers rapid movement to those equipped with sleds. Floating pack ice also presents a way to traverse an area that would otherwise be impassable on foot, while migrating animals offer a bountiful source of food. Today, the circumpolar world includes portions of eight nations: Russia, the United States, Canada, Greenland (Denmark), Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. This area is home to about 400,000 people with ancestral links to the region, while the interactions of its inhabitants over thousands of years has seen remarkable cultures rise and – in some cases – fall. It is the story of these groups, both ancient and modern, and their ingenuity in harnessing a capricious climate that is the subject of a major new British Museum exhibition (see box on p.34). Here, we will take a look at some of the early occupants of the Arctic.

Ice Age colonists

In our increasingly climate-conscious age, it is well appreciated that changing temperatures can have severe implications for human activity. As our planet warms, so too the Arctic ice world is thawing, with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projecting that the North Pole will be open ocean rather than pack ice within two decades. While the stark challenges arising from the pace of modern temperature rises are addressed in the exhibition, it also illustrates how climate has always been a crucial concern for humans living in the Arctic.

‘We dedicate one section to climates of the past,’ says Amber Lincoln, lead exhibition curator at the British Museum. ‘People have inhabited the Arctic for 30,000 years, and over that long span of time the climate has shifted. Those shifts took hundreds or thousands of years and so we are able to examine the adaptive strategies that people used in the deep past to deal with the challenges associated with these changes. We’re using the archaeology to trace both the seasonal and the daily existence of living with weather, and also understand how people have lived with lengthy durations of changing weather patterns. When you study that long term, what you see is incredible resilience. You see cultural adaptation, material innovation, and collaboration and cooperation between different groups of people. But, of course, there is one big difference between then and now: the changes people are currently experiencing are occurring over a single generation.’

OPPOSITE This print by Kiliii Yüyan, called Umiaq and North Wind during Spring Whaling, gives a flavour of Arctic life. Its climate has shifted numerous times over the last 30,000 years, creating challenges and opportunities for human occupants. LEFT Siberia’s changing coastline. As temperatures warmed at the end of the last Ice Age, so too sea level rose. Here, the coast is
Siberia’s changing coastline. As temperatures warmed at the end of the last Ice Age, so too sea level rose. Here, the coast is shown 25,000 years ago, 9,000 years ago, and today. The locations of the key sites at Yana and Zhokhov Island are marked. IMAGE: Paul Goodhead.

The warming Arctic of today presents a very different backdrop to the environment that greeted the first human settlers around 30,000 years ago. Back then, the world was still in the grip of the last Ice Age, bringing both lower temperatures and – because so much water was stored as ice – lower sea levels. While some regions were inaccessible beneath glaciers, others enjoyed expanded territories, with a vast expanse of land known as Beringia, now lost beneath the sea, connecting Siberia and Alaska. Indeed, the north-east coast of Siberia lay over 1,000km further north than it does today. While this region was cold, it was also teeming with animal life. Woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, bison, and horse grazed vast grasslands that resembled a northern version of today’s African savannah. It was this plentiful hunting ground that allowed the first human settlers to make a life in the Arctic.

‘Some 30,000 years ago, there was grassy steppe on the high latitudes,’ Amber says. ‘and people were really reliant on the animals living there for food, clothing, and equipment. Mammoth tusk was used for all kinds of kit, ranging from hunting tools to tent poles. One place where you see this is a site called Yana, which lay beside the Yana River in north-east Siberia. Yana is incredible because, when it was published in 2014, it pushed back the dates for year-round occupation in the Arctic by about 14,000 years. Although older objects have been found in the Arctic, Yana provides the earliest clear proof that people were living there throughout the year. It was used heavily for about 2,000 years, but people returned to it on a more fleeting basis for about 20,000 years. One thing that’s amazing is that, alongside the hunting tools you’d expect to find, there is an incredible amount of jewellery, beadwork, and etched artwork. So clearly these people were not living on the edge of survival: they had time to devote to other activities.’

LEFT The extent of Beringia about 12,000 years ago, with modern coastlines superimposed, showing the land bridge that
The extent of Beringia about 12,000 years ago, with modern coastlines superimposed, showing the land bridge that once existed between Russia and Alaska. IMAGE: US National Park Service.

‘The fantastic work at Yana is being carried out be a large Russian team led by Vladimir Pitulko,’ says Jago Cooper, Curator of the Americas at the British Museum. ‘They are excavating a whole set of mammoth kill sites, but the site was only found because climate change is creating melting permafrost and so increasing erosion, in this case by the Yana River, which exposed the archaeology. There are only a couple of archaeologists who have the resources and will to work in northern Siberia, but there must be many other sites in the region that are still undiscovered. I think the public often perceive the Arctic to be a remote place that was colonised quite late in human history, yet Yana shows us this is completely not true. Britain was depopulated during the last Ice Age, for instance, so by comparison people were living in the Arctic 15,000 years earlier.’

Yana is also remarkable for the 200 or so sewing needles found at the site, a number that equals the combined total from every other Upper Palaeolithic site in the world. Their presence is a reminder that life in the Arctic was not only made possible by an abundant source of game, but also a crucial technology that is often taken for granted today: an ability to produce well-fitting and warm clothing. Despite the Yana colonists’ ability to adapt to steppe life, though, their world was not destined to last.

Taiga economy

The end of the Ice Age, around 15,000 years ago, spelled the end for the Siberian steppe grasslands. As the world warmed, so too the forest was able to advance north, and once-abundant hunting grounds were transformed into an expanse of tundra and taiga. Many of the animals that had sustained human life eventually became extinct, but the new conditions also enticed new wildlife, especially reindeer and elk. Like the mammoth before it, the reindeer offered much to its hunters, including food, fur for clothing, raw materials for creating shelter, and later on a form of transport. As the Arctic changed, so too did human strategies to master it.

‘People had to respond,’ says Amber. ‘One way was by focusing on new kinds of prey. Another was embracing a new technology, in this case flint micro-blades, which allowed smaller and more portable tools. There’s a site at Zhokhov, in what are now the New Siberian Islands, so it really is in the far north. It lies to the north-east of Yana, and about 9,000 years ago it was right on the Arctic coastline. There, we can see that people were hunting reindeer and – more surprisingly – polar bears. They were also breeding dogs: some that would have been suitable for bear-hunting, and some that look like they were used to pull sleds. And parts of sleds have been found at Zhokhov. This fits with the presence of something else: obsidian, the nearest source of which is hundreds of miles away. So the ability to cover large distance using sleds seems to have allowed long-distance trade.’

The end of the Ice Age meant that sea levels also began to creep up, but Beringia was not immediately inundated. Current dating suggests that the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska was only finally submerged about 11,000 years ago. By then, hunters were already active in the New World, where some of the earliest known micro-blades resemble examples from Zhokhov. Distinctive flint spearheads have also been found in northern Alaska, which would have been attached to wooden shafts and were well suited for hunting reindeer. As time passed, so too strategies for maximising the kill developed. Around 6,000 years ago, stone markers were installed along part of a reindeer migration route in Alaska, channelling them towards Agiak Lake. There, the animals were hunted, with some participants probably waiting in boats to pursue wounded animals seeking refuge in the water. Hunting on this scale suggests that several communities would assemble on a seasonal basis to take part.

Reindeer were not the only mammals that provided humans with the food and materials they needed to expand in the New World. Sea level along the north and west coast of Alaska reached its modern height around 5,000 years ago, and those places where seals and walruses came ashore to rest attracted human attention and settlement for thousands of years. One particularly distinctive coastal group suddenly appeared around AD 500. Known as the Old Bering Sea (OBS) culture, they seem to have owed their rapid dominance to another technological innovation: in this case, a novel form of harpoon. It employed a heavy walrus-ivory head, which needed a counterbalance at the base to stabilise it in flight. This implement aided the OBS when it came to attacking a prey able to provide a massive food surplus: walrus. But these harpoons are not only notable for signalling a new way of hunting, they are also covered with exquisite engravings. It is an approach common to many OBS implements.

Arctic art

‘You get really fine detail,’ Amber observes. ‘There are loops that curve into each other, and representations of animals as well as human figures, so their tools were beautifully decorated. This is partly thanks to the trade opportunities that ivory presented. In particular, it allowed the OBS to get hold of metal that was being produced elsewhere. And it was with metal implements that people were able to make these very detailed engravings.’

An OBS culture detachable walrus-ivory harpoon head and winged counterweight, dating to roughly AD 500-750. As well as representing a technological advance, such implements were decorated with beautiful and sophisticated artistry. (Not to scale).
An OBS culture detachable walrus-ivory harpoon head (LEFT) and winged counterweight (ABOVE), dating to roughly AD 500-750. As well as representing a technological advance, such implements were decorated
PHOTOS: Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera), Russian Academy of Sciences.

‘You do see other Arctic artistic styles at around this time, such as in north-west Russia. And there are differences. Sometimes you get real animals, like seals, being depicted; in other cases, there is an almost other-worldly element, where people are showing spirits and shape-shifting between animals and humans. One thing that Arctic art does have in common around the circumpolar world, though, is an incredible attention to animals and their body movements. It comes from the close observation of animals in their natural habitat, which allows them to be masterfully depicted. But it also reflects the importance of animals, which is one reason why functional items were beautifully made. If we look to contemporary examples among Inupiat and Inuit groups, we might interpret the motivations for making beautiful tools as a sign of respect to animals. In turn, those animals would offer themselves to hunters. In that light, beauty makes the object work better.’

BELOW A beautifully decorated walrus-ivory artefact of uncertain purpose. It illustrates
A beautifully decorated walrus-ivory artefact of uncertain purpose. It illustrates

‘There is an extra dimension to this,’ says Jago, ‘which is that the object itself is made from an animal. So it’s also about respect to that animal, which gave up its life to the creator of the object. This approach reflects the integrated nature of the human–animal relationship, which is mirrored in a way by the lack of distinction between artistic and utilitarian ideals. The two are fused. That is a big difference from what you often see. If you walk around the museum, you will see a lot of objects that have been created essentially as art, and which served as symbols of dominion over the landscape and so forth. With these Arctic artefacts you get everyday tools and art brought together as one. With these tools, form and function are tied.’

Arctic silk road

Another Arctic group are the Ipiutak culture, who arose in Alaska around AD 200-400, before suddenly disappearing c. AD 900, perhaps caused in some way by the OBS. The Ipiutak have left some striking artefacts, including this ivory and jet mask-like object, which was found in a grave and dates to AD 200-400. The piercings around the face likely mirror the labrets adorning members of the Ipiutak.
This Dorset culture maskette was made from caribou antler around AD 500-1300. The lines criss-crossing it may represent tattoos or even bones, suggesting possible links with shamanic practices. (Not to scale). PHOTO: National Museum of Denmark; Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge.

The metal that allowed the OBS in Alaska to produce such fine art was far from being the only example of trade between Arctic peoples and southern communities. At Ust’-Polui in Russia, elements of reindeer harness have been found dating from roughly the 3rd century BC to the 2nd century AD. Other finds from the site emphasise that these Arctic inhabitants were able to tap into perhaps the world’s most famous trading network: the Silk Road. ‘These alternative trade routes are often overlooked,’ says Jago. ‘Many people instinctively think of east–west connections when it comes to the movement of goods, but north–south links were also important. It’s partly because the rivers in Siberia flow from the south to the north, so they created natural trade highways. But it’s largely due to northern ivory and furs being a highly desirable commodity. They were hugely sought after in Asia and, thanks to the Silk Road, were reaching China.’

Despite the beautiful artistry and increasingly sophisticated trade networks that Arctic peoples developed, they were still vulnerable to the climate. This may have had a hand in the sudden disappearance of the Dorset culture of Canada, which arose around 2,500 years ago, before vanishing about AD 1300. They left behind them a legacy of beguiling works of art, including ivory figurines of a swimming polar bear, a man holding aloft a child, and a miniature reindeer mandible pendant, as well as an antler maskette, which bears markings suggestive of shamanistic practices. Such wonderful works may not have been made from a position of strength, though. It has been suggested that this artistic outpouring was driven by a desperate desire for spiritual protection as the Dorset culture neared its end.

Examples of Dorset culture artistry: a walrus- ivory figure of a child being held aloft by an adult (Far LEFT), an ivory pendant in the form of a caribou jaw (left), and a swimming polar bear (BELOW left), all dating to around AD 500-1300. (Not to scale). PHOTOS: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge.

They found themselves in competition with incomers known as the Thule, who had developed an advanced form of harpoon. This allowed the Thule to benefit from the food and resources that whale-hunting delivered, at exactly the time that a brief period of warming may have left the Dorset people’s preferred prey – seals – in short supply. If so, the Dorset culture’s sluggishness in adapting to a warmer climate, coupled with competition from the technologically advanced Thule, spelled their doom. Fascinatingly, the Thule are the ancestors of the modern Inuit, whose oral histories remember the Dorset culture. Inuit stories cast these folk as strong and shy, preferring to shun the incoming Thule rather than fight them directly.

BELOW The Dorset people used toggle-headed harpoons, such as this example, for hunting.
The Dorset people used toggle-headed harpoons, such as this example, for hunting.

Looking at the circumpolar world from the perspective of the range of cultures that have made homes there over thousands of years, and their connections to the wider world, brings home the richness and complexity of Arctic life. ‘It’s a long time since so many different material cultures from the region have been brought together in the UK,’ says Jago. ‘And you need something on this scale and with this scope to gain a true perspective. It allows you to imagine the Arctic Ocean as something more like the Mediterranean Sea, with the wealth of cultures that flourished around it. There is certainly huge cultural diversity around the Arctic Ocean, and you get all these connections across it at different times. So, there is this sense of a cradle of culture, which is often overlooked’.

Arctic: culture and climate will run at the British Museum until 21 February 2021.
For information about tickets (and COVID-19 restrictions), see
A fascinating publication accompanies the exhibition: A Lincoln, J Cooper, and J P L Loovers, Arctic: culture and climate (Thames & Hudson, ISBN 978-0500480663, £35).
CWA is grateful to Amber Lincoln, Jago Cooper, and Olivia Rickman.