Casting a weather eye over a cold landscape

The Last Imaginary Place
July 14, 2006

The Arctic is a world apart, a place where the present and past still merge seamlessly in ways unimaginable in lower latitudes. Canadian archaeologist Robert McGhee describes it as a distant and compelling landscape, the last imaginary place, the subject of folklore and legend since classical times. Few of us visit it regularly or are familiar with the startling contrasts and brutal realities of an Arctic where humans have flourished for more than 15,000 years.

McGhee traces the history of a place that is still seen largely through the eyes of outsiders. His journey begins with the Arctic in ancient thought, with classical Greek tales of Scythians and the impenetrable Rhipaean Mountains, which separated the paradisical land of the Hyperboreans from the known world. We learn of Pytheas the Greek, who sailed to the land of Thule and the northern ice; of depictions of the Arctic on maps by Mercator and others; of persistent tales of tropical palm forests in the north.

McGhee then describes the world of the Arctic hunter, with its extreme seasonal variations promoting huge aggregations of animals at certain times of the year. This was not an easy environment: highly mobile populations rose during times of plenty and fell rapidly when food was scarce.

Elaborate belief systems permeated northern lives in a cosmos of stacked planes, with shamanism providing an explanation for the cycles of good and bad times.

First colonisation, of uncertain date, gave way to new settlement about 5,000 years ago, when the mysterious Tuniit, the "Paleo-Eskimo", spread across the Arctic from Siberia. Their descendants were the Dorset people of 500BC to AD1500, famous for their intricate artwork. Dorset groups came in contact with Norse traders from Greenland, and also with ancestral Inuit people from the west, after the 12th century AD. McGhee believes that the last Tuniit perished as late as 1902.

From the Tuniit, McGhee travels to Siberia, where he describes the patchwork of small nations that hunted reindeer and traded furs and ivory with the Russians. Expanding Russia left the northern people alone until the 1920s, when a network of co-operative enterprises transformed what was thought of as "primitive communism" into contemporary socialism. He gives us a compelling account of a visit to the Chukotkan town of Lavrentia, where the people wrestle with the post-Soviet world.

From Siberia, we turn to the familiar tale of the Norse, who left Greenland a unique mix of Inuit and European cultures. As the Vikings explored the North Atlantic, ancestral Inuit, the so-called Thule people, settled over much of the Canadian Arctic, having originated in the Bering Strait region, in the Old Bering Sea culture that enmeshed hundreds of small communities in an intricate economic and social web. McGhee believes that this complex society came about, in part, as the result of the introduction of iron tools from China or Russia. He theorises that whale-hunting Thule groups spread east about 1,000 years ago, having heard of new sources of iron and other metal in the eastern Arctic.

Five chapters describe European explorations of the Arctic and the search for the Northwest Passage after the Norse abandonment of Greenland. They provide an excellent overview of travellers such as Sebastian Cabot, Martin Frobisher, Henry Hudson, Samuel Hearne and John Franklin. Their explorations are familiar historical territory, often marked by poor judgment and haphazard planning. But McGhee, armed as he is with an intimate knowledge of the indigenous people and their ancestors, places them in a broader context. In one useful chapter, McGhee describes the impact of the industrialised world of today on the Arctic and its peoples, through epidemics, trade and resettlement, as well as the Cold War, commenting that there has been a remarkable transformation in Northern society, but one of scale rather than uniqueness, for the Arctic has always been a place of change. He notes that the northern peoples have inherited a legacy of change that enables them to confront the problems of the present and future with confidence.

The Last Imaginary Place is a skilful melding of archaeology, history and personal experience, written by a scholar with a rare gift for popular writing and evocative description. McGhee's personal experiences provide a wonderful tone. He sees Arctic history as a seamless continuum, marked by continual economic and social change set against harsh environments that challenged Inuit and European explorer alike.

And this is surely how one should look at all North American history, without the artificial barriers of Christopher Columbus and John Cabot separating "prehistory" from "history". "I once spent a few hours in the Ice Age," McGhee writes at the beginning of this remarkable book. Happily, he allows us to spend a few hours in the Arctic in the company of an erudite, passionate guide.

Brian Fagan is emeritus professor of anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara, US.

The Last Imaginary Place: A Human History of the Arctic World

Author - Robert McGhee
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 296
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 19 280730 7

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