Thule Culture

Thule expanse, shown in yellow

The Thule culture were predecessors to the modern and various Inuit and Yupik groups of Alaska, the Arctic, and High Arctic. They were a fast moving culture spreading from the Russian Far East (Chukotka) throughout Southwest and Northern Alaska and to the Canadian High Arctic and to parts of Greenland.  

The Thule tradition (lasting from about 1 A.D. to 1500 A.D.), likely developed out of the Norton tradition in Alaska (Dumond 2009). As a whole, the Thule represented a “new kind” of adaptation to the Arctic environment, based largely on the hunting of very large sea mammals in open water through the use of drag floats attached to harpoon lines. What is more, large skin boats and the use of dogs to pull large sleds (dog sleds) were not so much as innovations, but as perfections that assisted in the rapid migration and transportation of the Thule eastward.

Winters were spent in relatively large communities made up of semi-subterranean houses, subsisting on a stored surplus obtained most typically by hunting bowhead whales. The earliest sites are on islands and the coastal shorelines of northern Alaska and exhibit an almost complete reliance on maritime resources. Later sites demonstrate reliance on both maritime and terrestrial resources (such as caribou and birds). This adaptation developed around the Bering Strait region but spread, primarily though migration, to encompass practically the entire North American Arctic by 1000 A.D.

In the Canadian Arctic the Thule people replaced the Dorset culture in a poorly understood fashion. Climatic deterioration following the 13th century is widely credited with causing the Thule people to modify their way of life. The onset of the Little Ice Age (1400-1600 A.D.) (Fagan 2001) forced some groups to change subsistence practices; focusing more on caribou, seal, and fish. While other groups that lived closer to the ocean shore still continued to focus on whaling (McCartney et al. 1985). 



The Thule migration was first suggested by Mathiassen (1927:7) as occurring around 1000 A.D., ultimately leading to the modern Inuit cultures. Archaeologists have learned their culture developed along coastal Alaska and rapidly expanded eastwards towards Canada and ultimately Greenland. Their rapid expanse was largely attributed to the use of dogsleds and to the advances in skin covered umiaks, allowing them to travel in large numbers (McGhee 2001). As a result of their eastward migration, they replaced the Paleo-Eskimo Dorset culture and interacted with the Norse (Vikings). 

The different stages of the Thule culture are distinguished by their different design elements and styles of tools and art. The earlier stages, Punuk and Birnirk, have greater representation in the archaeological record and are thought to have lasted longer than their predecessor, the Old Bering Sea period. 

The Thule people are well known for either their technological advances or improvements upon transportation and hunting techniques and toolsets. They are well known for using slate knives, umiaks, and kayaks. They were efficient in the hunting of seals, walrus, and whales. Among their toolset was the toggling harpoon, made of a variety of materials; antler, bone, and ivory. The toggling harpoon played a very significant role in bowhead whale and sea mammal hunting. This form of harpoon is important because it is comprised of two parts. One half of the point that is firmly attached the thrusting base, while the second half of the point is fitted over this first point (like a cap) and attached to the rest of the point with line string (such as sinew). Once the harpoon is thrust into an animal, the top half of the point detaches and twists horizontally into the animal under the skin. This form of harpoon technology lodges the toggle end of the harpoon under both the animal’s skin and blubber making it nearly impossible for the harpoon to slip out of the animal (Mason 1902). An additional innovation to the toggling harpoon was the inflated harpoon line floats. These floats would be attached to line attached to harpoon. The purpose of these floats were to create drag or resistance on the animal. Ultimately, tiring the animal out and allowing hunting groups to pull the animal back to dispatch. Most importantly, these floats also allowed Thule groups to pursue and hunt larger prey, such as whales.



Settlements often consisted of both winter and summer structures. Thule winter settlements usually had one to four houses with an estimated ten people living in each house (Dumond 1987; McGhee 2001). Winter structures generally consisted of a combination of stone and whalebone covered with stones and sod. It was not until about 1500 A.D. when these forms of winter houses were given up and the snow block house was taken up for nearly all winter living (Dumond 1987). Conversely, summer houses generally were made of whale bones from summer hunts. Other structures included food caches and tent encampments. It is estimated that major settlements may have had more than a dozen houses. Examples of such a large village are seen at the Brooman Point Village site on Bathurst Island in the Canadian High Arctic (McGhee 1984, 2001). 

  • Thule House 1 at Kotzebue (Van Stone 1954)

    Thule House 1 at Kotzebue (Van Stone 1954)

  • Thule House 5 at Kotzebue (Van Stone 1954)

    Thule House 5 at Kotzebue (Van Stone 1954)

  • An example of the floor and tunnel of a Western Thule house (House 7 at Cape Krusenstern; Giddings 1967)

    An example of the floor and tunnel of a Western Thule house (House 7 at Cape Krusenstern; Giddings 1967)

Clothing and Personal Adornment

Modern Inuit groups used a variety of material for the manufacture of their clothing. Inuit and the Thule knew how to prepare and clean skins to make tents and an array of clothing. An example of this is seen from the mukluk from the Birnirk site. Additional examples show proficient sewing skills for the manufacture of mittens and other garments.



It has been postulated that warfare among groups occurred due to resource competition or for raiding of other groups. Archaeologically, both copper and ivory slat armor plates have been recovered suggesting conflict among groups was not uncommon and may have been long-standing (McGhee 2001).


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