A Glimpse of Human Ecology Through the Nomadic Life of Netsilik Inuit

The Netsilik Series is very successful in documenting the lives of Netsilik Inuit people in arctic region of Canada. They call themselves “the people of the seal” and have adapted to survive in one of the most extreme environments on our planet. Series was directed and produced by Quentin Brown in 1967 under grants from the National Science Foundation and the Ford Foundation (U.S.) and by Education Development Center, Inc. of Newton, MA (U.S.), in association with the National Film Board of Canada. Under the ethnographic direction of Dr. Asen Balikci of the University of Montréal it became one of the ethnographical masterpieces belonging to a genre called visual anthropology. Netsilik series has helped create an extensive course material for school children. Dr. Balikci has since produced many high quality documentaries.

In the beginning, we are reminded of the fact that although it is an accurate depiction of Inuit way of life some parts had to be enacted. It has no narration or subtitles. Hearing conversations adds a certain poetic feeling.

At the opening scene we find ourselves in the middle of a conversation. An Inuit family gave a short break during the journey to their next camp. They make jokes to each other and perhaps are deciding on location of the next camp site. We hear voices of almost everyone including the dogs. Dogs are vital as domesticated animals. They provide muscle power as well as early warning against polar bears. There is almost one dog per human. As they set to continue we count a total of 6 people and four dogs. We notice that the man helps two dogs in pulling one of the slades. We will see the reason why in part 3 of the series.

Footage demonstrating the construction of igloos is of great ethnographical value. Dome is a convergent architectural style among nomadic as well as sedentary human cultures from yurts in Mongolia to Harran houses in Turkey. Throughout the documentary we observe the use of fire fueled by oil from animal fat. We also see quite specialized tools like the sunscreen to protect the eyes. One of the women shapes sealskin to make the sole of a boot.

You can watch the rest of the series below, where the Netsilik Inuit men hunt seal on the sea ice, a polar bear skin is pegged out to dry, and people nibble on raw fish from the cache.

Body stature of the Inuit follows Allen’s rule which dictates that colder climates favor shorter limbs and more barrel like chest. Neanderthals also evolved a similar body shape in order to adapt to ice age conditions.

Nomadic and hunter gatherer style of subsistence have been on the retreat since the neolithic period. In our time, last bastions of such cultures are in remote areas (see the short footage from Survival International). Documentaries like the Netsilik Inuit series provide one of the best records for understanding human ecology. Our planet is changing rapidly due to human activities. Anthropogenic global warming is reducing the sea ice. In 2011 it has been reported that the Northeast seaway is now permitting the passage of cargo ships without ice breakers and soon the entire North Sea will be ice free.

Decline in the Arctic Sea Ice Cover 1979-2011 from Uzay Sezen on Vimeo.

Peopling of the Arctic has been a fascinating part of Human paleo-history. DNA evidence from living and ancient inhabitants show a single influx from Siberia produced all the “Paleo-Eskimo” cultures, which abruptly died out 700 years ago. Modern-day Inuit and Native Americans arose from separate migrations. In fact based on DNA evidence scientists can verify 4 waves of colonizations. First arrival was 6000 years ago including Saqqaq and three separate Dorset cultures. Second wave was at around 1000 years ago and those were the ancestors of the modern-day Inuit known as Thule People. There were two more waves reaching further south, giving rise to Native American ancestors.

Previously, most hypotheses about the origins of these populations were based on cultural artefacts. However, cultural changes, identified through tools and other remains, are not the best way to track ancient population movements.

In the remainder of this post you can see more footage pertaining to the life of the Inuit compiled from CBC archives.

A hunter, travelling alone with sled and dogs catches and kills a squirrel. In camp, a sled is constructed from bones and polar bear skin. The family breaks camp and moves ashore for the summer.

A quite detailed footage demonstrating the hunting technique of the Inuit in two parts.

Subsistance of the Inuit in summer time when the sea ice retreats.


 

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