Ancient suspects cleared in Viking mystery tale
Inuit ancestors ruled out as having scared off Norsemen
Randy Boswell, Canwest News Service
Published: Friday, August 22
It's the oldest whodunit in Canadian history, and new research has conclusively ruled out one of the suspect aboriginal groups behind the retreat of Viking would-be colonists from the New World.
A scientific redating of the eastward migration of the Thule -- ancestors of modern-day Inuit -- has pegged their push across Canada's polar frontier to no earlier than AD 1200. That's at least 150 years after Norse voyagers from Greenland are believed to have abandoned their short-lived, 11th-century settlement at the northern tip of Newfoundland following hostile encounters there, and in Labrador, with native inhabitants they called Skraelings.
Because of their relatively late arrival in northern Canada -- originally set by experts at about AD 1000 -- the Thule (pronounced "too-ley") have always been outside contenders in the long-running quest to identify the people who scared the Vikings out of Canada.
Parks Canada archeologist Margaret Bertulli investigates a centuries-old Nunavut site linked to the Thule, whale hunters of the Arctic who were the ancestors of today's Inuit.
An earlier paleo-Eskimo culture called the Dorset -- which was eventually overrun and extinguished by the eastward-migrating Thule -- and Indian nations such as Newfoundland's extinct Beothuks and the ancestral Innu of Labrador remain suspects in this coldest of Canadian cold cases.
Thule archeological sites, while spread widely across the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, have never been found as far south as Newfoundland. But lingering uncertainty about the timing of the Thule migration, the precise boundaries of their movements and the identity of the Skraelings who clashed with the Norse have kept the Thule as long shots on the list of suspects.
Now, a study by Canadian archeologists Max Friesen and Charles Arnold -- published last month in the scholarly journal American Antiquity -- argues that their redating of two sites in the western Arctic proves the Thule didn't reach Canada from their Alaskan homelands until after 1200.
"A round figure of AD 1000 has often been assumed for the beginning of the migration," Friesen and Arnold write. "We believe that the most parsimonious interpretation is that the Thule migration happened in the 13th rather than the 11th century AD."
This 200-year difference has "major implications," the authors argue, for assessing "the nature of Thule interaction with Dorset and Norse peoples in the East."
Friesen, an anthropology professor at the University of Toronto, said: "Although I'm normally pretty cautious about these things, I do think that we can definitively rule out the Thule as being those Skraelings ... As far as we can tell, Thule never made it onto the island of Newfoundland."
That still leaves unsolved a monumental mystery from the dawn of Canadian history, and few solid clues about what happened.
It is known that Viking voyagers reached Canadian shores about 1,000 years ago. A site unearthed in the 1960s at L'Anse aux Meadows, N.L., proved that Norse settlers built sod houses and tried to create an offshoot of their Greenland and Iceland colonies.
The Newfoundland site is almost certainly the legendary place called Vinland that is described in the literary sagas of medieval Iceland. According to oral tradition that was eventually set down in writing in the 13th century, Vinland was a relative paradise of summer greenery and mild winters for Norse visitors used to harsher conditions back home.
But they also found unidentified tribes of natives who were hostile toward them, and the Vikings abandoned Vinland after a few years, sailing home for the safer shores of Greenland.
Source: Edmonton Journal