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article imageArctic people were spinning yarn before the Vikings arrived

By Karen Graham     Jul 24, 2018 in Science
New research and technologies may end up changing the way we think about early Arctic history, upending the assumption that the ancient ancestors of today's Inuit people learned how to spin yarn from Viking settlers.
It has long been assumed that the ancient Dorset and Thule people learned how to spin yarn from Norse settlers who arrived in Newfoundland some 1,000 years ago, according to the Canadian press.
“There’s a lot we don’t know,” said Michele Hayeur Smith of Brown University in Rhode Island and lead author of a recent paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
Hayeur Smith and her colleagues had been looking at some yarn pieces recovered from ancient sites on Baffin Island and the Ungava Peninsula in the Eastern Canadian Arctic.
This photo was taken near the community of Resolute where about half a dozen of these houses are sca...
This photo was taken near the community of Resolute where about half a dozen of these houses are scattered. They are made of whalebone, and because of the material, are very difficult to carbon date.
The pieces of yarn appeared to be made of animal hair and sinews and the researchers supposed the yarn was used to hang amulets or decorate clothing. The ongoing belief was that the early Arctic peoples picked up the skill of spinning yarn from the Norse colonists who sailed from Greenland, establishing a community at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.
It was a nice assumption and researchers heralded the observation as "evidence of direct or indirect contact between the Norse and early Thule culture Inuit ancestors moving eastward from homelands in northern Alaska and across the Canadian Arctic to Greenland," according to the study.
However, Hayeur Smith specializes in the study of ancient textiles, and she had her doubts about these ancient yarns. She believed they were much older, predating the arrival of the Viking settlers.
Dorset culture spun yarn from the Nanook Site (KdDq-9): 4384.
Dorset culture spun yarn from the Nanook Site (KdDq-9): 4384.
M. Hayeur Smith
Fibers predate Viking settlement
Hayeur Smith had examined Norse yarn fragments many times, and right off, she noticed the samples from the Baffin and Ungava Peninsula looked nothing at all like Viking yarn fibers. And she asked herself, why would highly skilled ancient clothes-makers want to learn such a basic technique from anyone else?
“The idea that you would have to learn to spin something from another culture was a bit ludicrous,” she said. “It’s a pretty intuitive thing to do.”
But the research team had a problem. The yarn fragments were covered in seal and whale oils that had made them impossible to radiocarbon date in the past. The question of sample contamination is an enduring one for dating archaeological sites and objects, not only in the Arctic, and is especially vexing with these materials, commonly called cordage.
Dorset culture spun yarn from the Nanook Site (KdDq-9):  4268.
Dorset culture spun yarn from the Nanook Site (KdDq-9): 4268.
M. Hayeur Smith
Co-author of the study, Gorill Nilsen at Tromso University in Norway came up with a way to remove the oil out of the fibers without damaging them. Nilsen developed a "pre-treatment" in collaboration with Beta Analytic Laboratories, for removing marine mammal contamination from archaeologically recovered materials.
After using the Nilsen pre-treatment, the cordage samples were then subjected to the latest carbon-dating methods. Co-author Kevin Smith of Brown University said the results were jaw-dropping. “They clustered into a period from about 100 AD to about 600-800 AD — roughly 1,000 years to 500 years before the Vikings ever showed up. (The Dorset) are manipulating the kinds of fibers you find in your environment at least as early as 100 BC.”
Early interaction and cultures
Here's what is really interesting about this study - Hayeur Smith says there is some evidence that the ancient Arctic peoples may have actually taught the Vikings a few things about weaving yarn. It's believed the Norse learned how to use hair from bears and foxes, as well as from sheep and goats, from the people they referred to as Skraelings.
L Anse aux Meadows a UNESCO World Heritage Site is the only authenticated Viking settlement in North...
L'Anse aux Meadows a UNESCO World Heritage Site is the only authenticated Viking settlement in North America.
Newfoundland & Labrador Tourism
The word skræling is the only word surviving from Greenlandic Norse, the Old Norse dialect spoken by the medieval Norse Greenlanders. In modern Icelandic, skrælingi means "barbarian", whereas the Danish descendant, skrælling, means "weakling
And the study has implications for all Arctic archaeological studies. Early Dorset and Thule cultures made intensive use of marine mammal products for subsistence, heating, lighting, water-proofing, and as raw materials for producing high-status objects. To get a believable date on most Arctic artifacts, the pre-treatment will have to be done to get an accurate radio-carbon date.
According to the study, marine mammals incorporate carbon from both marine and atmospheric reservoirs into bodily tissues from the food and water they consume and the air that they breathe. This means radiocarbon dates on marine organisms can be hundreds of years older than contemporary terrestrial organic samples
“There’s a lot of questions like that in the Arctic — getting the subtleties of when people moved in to certain areas,” Smith said. “How did they move? What are the migration patterns? Until we get good dating methods we can’t even begin to deal with that.”
More about Archaeology, norsemen, yarn spinning, Dorset people, Thule people
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