Northeastern Canada : Dorset people, 1,000-year-old rituals

Small bear figurines have led researchers on the trail of hitherto unknown pre-Inuit rituals, indicating that these people practiced a bear cult.

Ditte Svane-Knudsen

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The headless bear figure was found lying with its neck against the back wall, as if it was diving into the fireplace This has led archaeologists to believe they are dealing with a hitherto unknown ritual practice. (Photo: The National Museum of Denmark)

In the 1950s, the now diseased Danish archaeologist Jørgen Meldgaard made a mysterious discovery in northeastern Canada: A small, headless bear figurine, carved from a walrus tusk, was lying leaning up against the back wall of a stone fireplace in an old settlement. The bear had been positioned in a way that made it look as though it was ‘diving’ into the fireplace. At the time, this little figurine didn’t cause much of a stir. It was just one out of a long series of discoveries that Meldgaard made during his field trips to the Igloolik region of Arctic Canada and Greenland in the 1950s and 1960s. But when researchers at the Danish National Museum recently gained access to Meldgaard’s surviving diaries, records and photos, they realised that the discovery of the bear figurine was indeed quite sensational.

Humans and animals were close

Their examination of the material revealed that the small bear figurine could be an important key to understanding how people from more than 1,000 years ago viewed the relationship between animals and humans. ”The figurine provides us with information about some previously unknown 1,000-year-old rituals, which suggest that the Pre-Inuit, also known as the Dorset people, imagined that humans were related to certain animals in a way that’s very far from what we would imagine in today’s Western world,” says Ulla Odgaard, a senior researcher at the National Museum. “Apparently, the Dorset people in Greenland and Canada didn’t see any antagonism between humans and animals,” she adds. “Humans were not superior to animals; rather, it was a symbiotic co-existence. Bears and other animals functioned as mediators between mankind and the world of spirits.”

The Dorset way of thinking is also known from other early cultures

In other words, the finds reveal a belief in which animals – bears in particular – are our brothers, whose lives blend in with our own. 


The walrus tusk figurine is only 3.4 cm in length and could be an important key to understanding how people more than 1,000 years ago understood the relationship between humans and bears. The figure is thought to have disappeared now, leaving today’s archaeologists with little more than Jørgen Meldgaard’s sketches and blurry photos. (Photo: The National Museum of Denmark)

The way the Dorset culture viewed the relationship between humans and animals is known as animism – a phenomenon also known from other cultures. “We know that the relationship between bears and humans has been crucial in all pre-modern cultures. This applies almost as far back in time as we can trace – all the way back to the very earliest renderings of the world that humans have created,” says Odgaard's colleague at the National Museum, Martin Appelt. For instance, we see this relationship expressed in small carvings and cave paintings of humans and bears from the hunter-gatherer culture. “Many cultures have combined human and animal features in their illustrations – e.g. a figurine of a bear with a falcon’s body, where the underside depicts a carved human head,” he says. On many figurines from early cultures, the skeleton is cut so that it’s visible outside the body – and that’s also the case with Meldgaard’s bear figurine. According to Appelt, this bears witness to a belief that the difference between humans and animals only lies in the skin they’re wearing, so to speak. “So an animal is also a person – only with a different skin. And some of them have probably been regarded as spirits – i.e. people in a parallel universe to ours.”

The bear was something special

The apparent fact that bears were regarded as something special could be because the bear, along with man, is one of the few animals that were believed to transcend and travel between the worlds of land and sea. Another explanation may be that humans and bears could change roles depending on the situation: sometimes it was the man who hunted the bear and sometimes it was vice versa.

The discovery of another bear was an eye opener


Among the thousands of unique and spectacular objects that Jørgen Meldgaard and his colleagues excavated in the Canadian settlements in the 1950s and 60s, the many fine carvings made from walrus tusks, reindeer antler and driftwood are particularly interesting to archaeologists. These include small carvings of humans, human-like creatures and various animals, but also figures which seem to contain traits from both humans and animals. The figures reveal a belief in which animals – bears in particular – are our brothers, whose lives blend in with ours. (Photo: The National Museum of Denmark)

Meldgaard also found another bear figurine in a nearby settlement. This bear stood upright with its head sticking up and the body half buried in the gravel. Underneath it they found a fireplace, which suggests that this bear apparently was about to rise up from the fireplace. The combination of both of the bear figurines’ interaction with the fireplaces led the Odgaard to believe that this could be a sign of rituals. Carved bear figurines and the symbolism of rising and diving bears is also known in other parts of the world, for instance in Siberia, where resurrection rituals have been performed for millennia, says Odgaard. Here, the bear was the mythical ancestor that every year travels to the upper world to secure the liberation of the animals’ souls, so that humans again can hunt them.

The fireplace was the gateway to other worlds

Legends from Siberia indicate that humans could communicate with the world of spirits through the fireplace. In other words, the fireplace may have been regarded as a gateway to other worlds. Bears are also known from Neolithic petroglyphs in Siberia and numerous finds of bear heads or headless bear figurines in the Arctic region. But none of these have been found in a ritual context like the two from Igloolik.

Bear figurines could explain lack of finds of burial sites

Since the ritual with fireplaces appears to stretch across time and space, the researchers believe the finds are of far greater importance than previously thought. The bear figurines on the fireplaces are not only some of the few physical vestiges testifying to the Dorset culture’s view of life and death that archaeologist have ever come across. The figurines may also help explain an old mystery – why archaeologists only rarely find burial sites from the earliest settlers in Greenland and Arctic Canada.

Dorset people may have dismembered their dead

Although there’s no shortage of ancient Inuit tales about the special relationship between humans and animals, the oral sources tend to dry out once we start moving toward the millennia before the Inuit settled in Arctic Canada and Greenland. “We have so far had glaringly few archaeological finds from pre-Inuit graves on other ritual elements that could increase our understanding of how the pre-Inuit people viewed their world,” says Appelt. “This is where the bear figurines suddenly make many pieces fall into place. Suddenly we understand the many other figures with bear heads or headless bears in a completely different way.” That the two bear figurines from the fireplaces have their skeletons carved on the outside of their bodies also confirms a suspicion the archaeologists have had that Dorset people probably dismembered their dead and scattered them out on the fields or sunk them in the sea, so they would end up as animal food – like we’re seeing in e.g. today’s Nepal and Tibet. “This suspicion is compounded by the fact that the few bones we’ve actually found from the Dorset culture are not whole skeletons, but simple elements – a jaw, a thighbone, etc.This suggests that the Dorset people had a completely different view of skeletons and bodies from what we have today – which the carvings of external skeletons on the bear figurines testify to.”

Rituals transcend space and time

Appelt says that the bear figurines from Igloolik are forcing archaeologists to think outside the box. “We archaeologists prefer to work from the hypothesis that we can define various periods in history and that there is a clear division between space and time. But the figurines reveal that this is not the case here,” says Appelt. “Some phenomena, such as animism and the rituals with the fireplaces and the dismemberment of the dead, transcend time and space – which is why you simply need to view them in bits of several 100,000 years if they are to be understood and make sense.”

Time and space not enough to understand the past

The archaeologist explains that when you look at archaeological finds across the world, there are so many overlaps where rituals transcend across cultures, time and space that there seems to be a connection. "It’s very strange! And many archaeologists will surely find it unreasonable to think this way as an archaeologist – because how can things be connected in this way?” says Appelt. ”I don’t have the answer. There’s no answer book here. But I think the two headless bear figurines prove that it’s not always right to view history from within the narrow confines of time, space and traditions. The next step for Odgaard, Appelt and their colleagues is to create an overview of Meldgaard’s records and publish the most important scientific findings.

Translated by Dann Vinther

-       The Dorset people in Greenland and Canada (c. 700 to 1,200 AD) is an archaeological term for a non-Inuit people group from Greenland. The Dorset culture preceded the Inuit culture in Arctic North America. Archaeologists believe the people migrated from Siberia and Alaska between 4,000 years ago and until the birth of Christ. Iniuit legends mention Tunitt (singular Tuniq) or Sivullirmiut (‘The first inhabitants’) as a people who were displaced by the Inuit. Archaeologists, however, doubt whether or not the Inuit met with the Dorset culture, although there is a general consensus that the two groups have lived in the same area for a period. Dorset culture became extinct around 1902 – probably as a result of a change in climate and living conditions, but also because they were ousted by the Inuit.