Past Issues

continued from cover

Developing a rich picture of the past -
Friesen and Inuit elders near Cambridge Bay.
Photo courtesy of David F Pelly
(Previously published in above&beyond magazine)

Max Friesen:
Unearthing 4,000 years of Arctic history

What many Canadians know of the people who live and who have lived in Canada's Arctic is based on stereotypes - the igloo, the dogsled, "200 words for snow" and a diet of seal meat.

But academic detectives like U of T archaeologist Max Friesen are, literally, unearthing a history rich in detail. And Friesen has a unique approach - he is reconstructing this story in collaboration with Inuit elders.

Over the past five years, Friesen has made his second home an archaeological site called Iqaluktuuq. The site is just outside Cambridge Bay, a village on Nunavut's Victoria Island, about 800 kilometres north of Yellowknife, N.W.T.

Located on a river that drains into the Arctic Ocean, Iqaluktuuq has been, over thousands of years, a mecca for the people of the north. "There is a huge Arctic char run in the river in August," says Friesen. "And in fall, large caribou herds migrate southward across this river. Because of these resources, everyone who has ever lived there has been drawn to this one tiny area like a magnet. There is nothing like it for hundreds of kilometres."

With people living and hunting there since 2000 BC, the area has proven to be a treasure trove of archaeological finds. Included among the hundreds of artifacts Friesen and his team have uncovered are:

  • a 3,500-year-old chipped stone arrowhead
  • a 1,000-year-old carving of a bear
  • an 800-year-old copper spear point
  • a 500-year-old pair of wooden snow goggles
  • evidence of longhouses, some reaching 43 metres

These remnants of ancient lifeways are helping Friesen and other archaeologists to shed light on an archaeological puzzle.

The Arctic has been settled over the past 4,500 years by two groups. The people we know today as the Inuit arrived relatively recently, around 1200 AD. They were, in fact, the last wave of immigrants from Asia to cross the Bering Strait and settle throughout the Americas.

Before the Inuit, however, was a group archaeologists refer to as Palaeo-Eskimos. "They were a totally different people, genetically and culturally," says Friesen. "The big question now is did the two groups ever meet? Or did the Palaeo-Eskimos die out due to environmental change prior to the Inuit arriving?"

Friesen's analysis of the artifacts points to evidence that the Palaeo-Eskimos and the Inuit did meet, although it isn't clear what happened to the original group. "But with the information we are gathering, we will learn more about this topic," he says.

The artifacts aren't the only clues Friesen has to the social past of the region. "This is a community initiative. The elders were already collecting traditional knowledge about the region, and invited me to work with them because they were aware of the large, rich archaeological sites on the river. Because the research is happening within a modern Inuit social context, we will be able to develop a much more complete picture of past lifeways than would otherwise be possible."

Examining the environmental forces
acting on mammals - Boonstra and
snowshoe hare in the Yukon

Rudy Boonstra:
Stress and the snowshoe hare

It is a conundrum that has fascinated Rudy Boonstra and his colleagues for years. The boreal forest wreathes the top of Canada, covering some 5 million square kilometres. Every 10 years, the dominant herbivore in this forest - the snowshoe hare - cycles like clockwork. In the southwestern Yukon, where Boonstra studies this species, their numbers peak at 200-300 per square kilometre and then rapidly decline to about seven over a period of two or three years.

"We know that the cause of the decline is their predators - they are the primary food of the Canada lynx, coyotes and great horned owls," says Boonstra, a physiologist and zoologist at the University of Toronto at Scarborough.

"Eventually, this predator population, which also cycles, builds up and kills off the majority of the hare population, causing the decline. What baffled us is why the subsequent low phase for hares then lasts between two and four years."

After all, he notes, snowshoe hares can live up to the reputation rabbits (to which hares are related) have of breeding quickly and in great numbers. Why, then, does it take them so long to recover from the decline, following the death of most of their predators, and repopulate the boreal forest?

Boonstra's hypothesis, now widely accepted as fact by the scientific community, is that the snowshoe hares are chronically stressed during the decline because of high predation risk. The effects of this chronic stress may then impair both the reproduction of survivors and of their offspring, delaying recovery during the low phase.

"When humans experience prolonged, intense stress from, for example, a divorce or the death of someone very close, you don't eat as much, you don't sleep well, and you lose interest in sex. As a result, reproduction cannot take place. The same happens with the hares. In their increase and peak years, they produce as many as 19 babies in a summer. During the declining years, the number drops to seven."

Boonstra showed through a series of studies that hares breeding during the decline suffer from a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome. "The overwhelming anxiety caused by years of being hunted constantly by the lynx programs this stress syndrome into their brains." He believes that this anxiety affects the hares for a few generations afterward, as it is passed on from mothers to their offspring.

This type of research has been central to Boonstra's 30-year focus on ecology, which also includes fieldwork on the Arctic coast of the Beaufort Sea, in the Rocky Mountains and in southern Ontario. It addresses biological questions that are essential to the broad issue of environmental change: How are populations of mammals regulated? Is stress related to the aging process? What are the environmental forces acting on mammals?

"If we are going to understand the changes in the earth's environment, such as global warming and the melting of the polar ice caps, then we need to understand how these changes impact species on the planet. The world is one big ecosystem. Everything is connected. The shifts in the boreal forest and the reproduction rates of northern mammals such as snowshoe hares may seem trivial, but they are essential in understanding life on this planet."

Douglas on northern Ellesmere Island.
"Humans are speeding up (environmental)
change and making it worse."

Marianne Douglas:
Important messages in polar mud

Marianne Douglas hauls a large, well-worn instrument out of a box in her University of Toronto office. It doesn't look like much, but this gravity corer is producing evidence that is vital to our understanding of just what is happening to the physical environment of our polar regions.

Douglas, an associate professor of Geology, is an international leader in a field called "palaeolimnology" - the study of the ancient sediments of lakes. She has focused most of her work in the Cape Hershel area of Ellesmere Island, about 1,300 kilometres from the North Pole. More recently, she has taken her investigation to Antarctica.

During the two months in summer that bodies of water in the Cape Hershel region are not frozen, she and her team sink the gravity corers into the sediment at the bottom of lakes and ponds and collect samples. In these samples is the story of the environmental change a lake has experienced over thousands of years.

"The sediments are like an archive of past environments. It's like a library with layer by layer of material that is being accumulated. It's like reading a book; when we look at our samples, we say, 'Let's see if we can read the pages.'"

Those "pages" are composed of algae called "diatoms," which are key indicators of environmental change.

What is the lesson being learned from the sediments? Douglas and other scientists have now proven that natural causes, not only human-induced forces, have played a major role in the warming trend in the Arctic over the past 150 years. Douglas has co-authored studies that show that changes started to occur around 1845, probably due to the combined effects of increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide and decreased volcanic activity as well as increased solar radiation.

But Douglas is quick to point out that these initial natural causes of Arctic warming do not, by any means, let humans off the hook for degradation of the Arctic environment. "The point is that we humans are speeding up the change and making it worse. Nature will cause any environment to change on its own. But the environmental damage we are doing all over the planet is making the change more profound and this is nowhere more evident than in the Arctic."

Alana Johns (foreground) in her Inuktitut class,
with colleague Saila Michael (r) and students
Sandhya Chari (l) and Linda Nguyen (r)

Alana Johns:
Keeping Inuktitut alive

The evidence is clear - the ancient language of the Inuit people, Inuktitut, is under threat. Across the Arctic, from Alaska to Labrador, in many communities the majority of people are no longer speaking Inuktitut or its various dialects.

"In communities where Inuktitut is endangered the older people are still speaking the language, but the children aren't using it and if they aren't, there's no way they can teach it to their children," says U of T linguistics professor Alana Johns, whose life's work has been to conduct linguistic research on Inuktitut.

What are the reasons for the language's decline? "Partly, it has to do with schooling, which requires the use of English. Then there is, of course, the impact of television and the socioeconomic reality that says if you speak English, your future is brighter."

While native language loss occurs among immigrant groups in major urban areas - Italian in Toronto, for example, or Cantonese in Vancouver - these languages survive because they are spoken in home countries, Johns says. "Almost all Inuktitut speakers are in the north, so if it is not being spoken there, its existence really is threatened."

There are, however, signs of hope for Inuktitut in the south as well as the north. In 2003, Johns launched a University of Toronto undergraduate course in the language, which is taught by Johns and Saila Michael, an Inuit speaker from Baffin Island who is studying in U of T's Transitional Year Program. Despite popular opinion, Johns says Inuit languages are no more difficult than others to learn. "It's much the same as Russian in its inflections and it certainly isn't any more difficult than, say, Japanese. What we need are more teaching materials and teachers."

Johns also feels that the success of the critically acclaimed feature film, Atanaarjuat, which used Inuktitut exclusively, is a perfect way of promoting use of the language. "It was really nice with that film to have a huge swath of oral language presented. That's how a language stays alive, by people speaking it. That film is an excellent teaching material, the same way Shakespeare's plays teach us how English was spoken in the 16th century."

She is also inspired by efforts in Wales to revive Welsh. "As linguists, we like to see as many languages as possible surviving. A language is a matter of national pride and identity. It is important not to lose them," she says, adding that some linguists feel about half of the world's languages will be gone in the next century.

Johns is focusing her research now on a project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council that will document and explain grammatical differences across Inuktitut's numerous dialects. In the summer of 2004, she took two U of T graduate students with her to Iqaluit, Nunavut, to do research on the project and they are going to visit Baker Lake this coming summer. Johns is also working with renowned anthropologist Jean Briggs, Professor Emeritus from Memorial University, on a dictionary of the Utkuhiksalingmiutut dialect of Inuktitut.

University of Toronto Office of the Vice-President, Research and Associate Provost