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Ancient People of the Arctic

by Robert McGhee

When the Inuit arrived in the Canadian Arctic 1,000 years ago, they found the Tunit, a race of strong, peaceful giants who were easily driven from the best hunting grounds and soon disappeared, marking the end of the Paleo-Eskimo culture that had flourished for over 3,000 years. It was a culture that probably introduced the bow to the North American Indians and the igloo to the Inuit, and that has left us with some of the most emotive works of art to come out of the North.

In Ancient People of the Arctic, Robert McGhee, curator of archeology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, uses his love of the North and his fascination with its people to bring the Paleo-Eskimo back to life.

Works by academics need two things to make them attractive to a lay audience: an interesting subject and an accessible writing style. The former is not a problem, given the importance of the North in the Canadian psyche, the allure of vanished cultures, and the beauty of the surviving art of the Paleo-Eskimo.

McGhee provides the latter by making his story of continent-wide migrations, adaptations to harsh environments, and dramatic climate change come alive. Finely crafted images abound. Caribou “drift across the landscape like ungainly ghosts,” and tattered, windblown muskoxen “lumber on their mysterious journeys.” In one of several re-creations, a Paleo-Eskimo family awakens one foggy night to hear the splashing paddles and unfamiliar language of the Inuit who will displace them. It may be stretching the archeological evidence, but it is a very effective way of transporting us to the lost world.

The readable text is also well complemented by the generous illustrations. Not only do they show us the extraordinary art of these people, but they also give us a sense of the landscape they inhabited and provide maps with which to follow their journeys. McGhee regards archeologists as travelers from the past telling the rest of us tales of their brief visits. This most enjoyable book tells a tale of epic proportions and will appeal to anyone with an interest in the North and its history.

This book complements the exhibition “Lost Visions, Forgotten Dreams: Life and Art of an Ancient Arctic People,” opening at the Canadian Museum of Civilization on November 14, before touring the rest of the country, Europe, Japan, and the U.S.