The Allure of Arctic Anthropology in East Greenland

Hadleigh Measham

20 Mar 2018

Polar Expedition Leader Hadleigh Measham Delves into the Past

Despite being located between 70˚ and 72˚ North - a similar latitude to the most northerly parts of Norway - Scoresby Sund in East Greenland has a truly High Arctic climate. Its mean average minimum temperature for mid-February over the last decade was approximately 20˚ Celsius (-4˚ Fahrenheit) and this will always deliver a stern test to any species sharing 98.4% of its DNA with that of a tropical ape. We humans have comparatively thin skin, low body fat percentages and pretty modest hair coverings, thus we are not very well cold-adapted for living in such an environment. Prolonged exposure in our natural state during the Arctic winter months would incapacitate even the toughest of our species with terrifying immediacy.

What we are able to do, ever since the post-colonial era anyway, is venture to and occupy the Arctic on a more seasonal basis with relative ease. Our means of transportation from the north can easily outperform the speed of winter’s advance by orders of magnitude, delivering us safely to warmer climates to join the migrated birds and mammals that had to leave before us. In pre-colonial times of course, a strategy involving seasonal delivery to lower latitudes for both food and warmth would not have been possible; Palaeolithic and Neolithic humans did not possess the means of transportation. They were therefore forced to remain, having adapted over many generations to subsist in a dark and frozen world, where the only reliable food source exists under three feet of ice.

American historian and cartographer Bill Rankin says the ‘average’ human lives 24 degrees (about 2700 km) north of the equator, yet the northernmost remains of a prehistoric settlement lie some 6400 km further north still, at around 82˚ 15’ N in Northern Greenland (9100 km from the equator). Interestingly by comparison, the southernmost prehistoric remains, the Bahía Wulaia Dome Middens of the Yaghan people, lie at about 55˚ 2.5’ south (approximately 6110 km south from the equator).

Considering all we know of East Greenland’s High Arctic environment, and of the human history of pre-colonial occupation, we must truly pause with amazement. The archaeological record here is long and involves a remarkable diversity of groups that discovered and explored the region at least seven times over thousands of years. Their cultural evolution and very survival seems so unlikely; the Arctic operates via a different and shifting set of rules - not even the quotidian ritual of light and darkness, day and night can be continuously observed here. Productivity is so heavily constricted in the Arctic to the summer months and, due to the simplicity of the ecosystem, can be altogether too fragile. Smaller-than-usual changes, or delayed pulses in any trophic level, can have catastrophic consequences to any species sitting beyond it in the food chain, explicitly for humans.

Personally, I have always felt a magnetic draw to such remote places of past human habitation and have used this to fuel many searches whilst visiting the shores of East Greenland’s great fjord regions. It is quite an astonishing feeling to sit quietly, seeming deafened by the magnitude of the silence amplified by the grandeur of the landscape, next to former dwellings that housed families centuries and even millennia ago. The cold environment preserves everything perfectly, shaking off its layer of snow and ice for a few months each year to reveal to us its secrets. In an investigative manner we use our knowledge of wildlife congregations and game trails, polynyas and shore leads, in addition to the general geography of the fjords, to speculate where we may find them. There has been relatively little archaeological work done in the Scoresby Sund system outside of basic site inventories of known locations, especially in its inner reaches.

It is that time of year again that I eagerly anticipate my late summer or autumn return to the shores of East Greenland. I often long to sit quietly again and gaze south into the vast Hall Bredning, up towards the confluence of Øfjord and Nordvestfjord or down the basaltic wall of Tænderne (the ‘teeth’) towards inner Gåsefjord. To paraphrase Henry Beston, I ask myself how remote from universal nature most of us are at home. Often, I consider remaining longer to dance with the risks of the changing seasons of any given year, and to further paraphrase, to become re-gifted with the extensions of senses we have lost or indeed never attained and to learn to live through voices we shall never really hear.

Hadleigh Measham will be joined on our East Greenland Wilderness Expedition by professional photographer and guide Andrew James - who will be dispensing expert advice on how best to capture Greenland's spectacular sights from behind your lens - as well as expedition leader Beau Pruneau and naturalist guide Jens Wikström, all with years of polar experience behind them. This incredible pioneering voyage on board the ice-strengthened M/S Freya will take you to areas that most tourists simply don't have the chance to see; most stick to the warmer south and more densely populated west of the country, both of which are much more easily navigable than the east. This is a trip for those with a true sense of adventure.

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