An elderly Inuit man, Aarulaq, wearing a duffle parka and ...

Inuit are the indigenous people of the North American Arctic. They live in Greenland and the polar regions of Alaska and Canada. Their ancestors migrated from Asia around 1000, making them the last indigenous people to settle the Americas. 

Inuit means ‘the people’ in Inuktitut. A singular Inuit is an Inuk. 

The word ‘Eskimo’ refers to the related peoples of the Arctic Circle who speak Eskimo-Aleut languages, including Inuit, the Aleuts of Alaska and the Yupik of Kamchatka. Eskimo means ‘snow shoes’ in Algonquin but scholars once thought it came from the Cree ‘askipiw’, meaning ‘eater of raw flesh’. That etymology is now disproven, though Eskimo is still considered derogatory in Canada. Inuit is preferred. 

Eskimos of Alaska construct an igloo, 1924 | Inuit, Igloo ...
Inuit in 1920

The ancestors of the Inuit crossed the Bering Strait from Siberia a thousand years ago. Known as the ‘Thule Culture’, their ancestors displaced the Dorset people who came before them and spread across the American Arctic. The Thule had greater numbers and husky-driven sledges which the Dorset lacked. The last Dorset group perished in 1903. Owing to their later migration, Inuit are more closely related to the indigenous Siberians than other Amerindian and First Nations groups. 

Inuit have adapted to the most extreme conditions of any human society. In the Arctic, temperatures can reach -50° and there are periods of 24-hour darkness in winter. There is no wood or domesticable animals. Agriculture is impossible. The traditional Inuit diet was 75% fat and in winter, 100% meat and fish.

Inuit drove sledges, wore fur coats and built skin tents in summer and igloos in winter. They fished, and hunted seals, walrus, caribou and whales, and made harpoons from narwhal horns and walrus ivory. Their adaption to polar environments meant Inuit settlers thrived in Greenland while Norse colonies perished. Kayaks are an Inuit invention. 

European whalers made contact with Inuit in the 1700s. By the 19th century, the measles, smallpox, tuberculosis and alcohol they introduced had killed 90% of the Inuit population.

Throwback Thursday: Nunavut up and running | Canadian ...

By the early 20th century, Inuit were hunting with guns and using metal tools. Many made a living selling fox pelts to white traders. Some attended missionary schools but were largely independent of mainstream Canadian society.

The Canadian government asserted control over the Inuit from 1939. Government assimilation policies forced Inuit children into residential boarding schools and assigned them state-sanctioned names. Abuse was rampant. They resettled nomadic Inuit into permanent settlements to lay claim to parts of the Arctic, ended their traditional way of life and forced them into the modern economy. The decimation of whale populations, melting ice caps and oil drilling has since made the traditional Inuit lifestyle untenable.

In the 1970s, university-educated Inuit lobbied for land claims and self-representation. The territory of Nunavut, which is majority Inuit, became self-governing in 1993. 

Map of Canada highlighitng the Nunavut and Nunavik regions

Today, Canadian Inuit live in four autonomous regions, each located north of the treeline.

  • Inuvialuit (Northwest Territories)
  • Nunavut (own territory)
  • Nunavik (Quebec)
  • Nunatsiavut (Newfoundland and Labrador)

Greenland, though under Danish sovereignty, is 80% Inuit. As in Canada, the Danish government resettled Inuit into towns and forced changes in diet and occupation. Resettlement, overfishing and climate change destroyed their traditional way of life in a mere generation. Greenland gained home rule in 1979.

Blanket Toss in Utqiagvik, Alaska

Modern Inuit are impoverished minorities in their respective countries. Many live in isolated communities with little access to roads and hospitals. Canadian Inuit live 15 -20 years less than the average citizen. In both Greenland and Canada, suicide is six times the national average. 

It is not all, however, so bleak. Inuit culture is seeing a revival across Alaska, Greenland and Canada. Traditional visual art and throat singing is taught across the Inuit homeland, and in Nunavut, most children now learn Inuktitut as a first language.

Sources: Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada, Inuit Tapariit Kanatami, Minority Rights Group

See Also:

Swamps, Marshes, Bogs and Fens

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Swamps, marshes and bogs are not the same thing. Strictly speaking, they are varieties of wetlands. This family of ecosystems is a stretch of land saturated with water, neither fully land nor sea. Wetlands may be found on the edges of oceans, lakes or rivers, or be regions unto themselves. They are crucial pillars of the world’s biodiversity.

Wetlands are buffers for storms and strong winds and absorb excess water from rainfall and flooding. They serve a crucial ecological function by naturally filtering chemicals, metals and pollutants in their soil. As insects breed in them, they are also rife with disease. At the bottom layer, wetlands may house coal, while bogs and fens house peat, a valuable biofuel.

World folklore depicts wetlands – swamps and bogs, in particular, as dangerous haunted places, home to real dangers like alligators and tigers, and imaginary ones like witches and bunyips.

There are four types of wetland: swamps, marshes, bogs and fens. These differ considerably by the plants that grow in them.

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A bayou in Louisiana, USA

Swamps are forested wetlands. Wooded plants dominate these regions, growing beneath the water and rising high above it. Saltwater swamps are found on tropical coastlines, freshwater swamps inland. Swamps tend to be humid and rich in wildlife. Famous swamps include the Bayou of Louisiana and the Mangrove Forests of Southeast Asia.

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The Everglades, Florida, USA

Marshes are wetlands dominated by herbaceous plants such as grasses, rushes and reeds. Saltmarshes ‘catch’ pollutants from human settlements downriver and stop them from entering the sea. Freshwater swamps form on the slow stretches of rivers or the edges of lakes. Migratory birds nest in saltmarshes before heading to sea. Famous marshes include the Everglades of Florida, the Mesopotamian Marshes of Iraq and the Okavango Delta.

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Bog in Mukri, Estonia

Bogs are the remains of ancient glaciers which melted at the end of the Ice Age. Unlike swamps and marshes, they are found only inland in colder, northern climates. Rather than trees or grasses, bogs are home to peat, a thick, spongy soil created from ancient, decaying plant matter, which eventually turns into coal. The excess of peat stifles plant growth, meaning bogs are often acidic and low in oxygen. Bogs dominate regions of Ireland, Russia, Scandinavia and North America and take over ten thousand years to form.

Fens form from glaciers but, unlike bogs, are fed by rivers and are alkaline, not acidic. They host both peat deposits and grassy plants. From a distance, fens resemble low-lying meadows. If enough peat develops or it loses access to freshwater, a fen can turn into a bog.

Pollardston Fen, Ireland

‘Mire’ is another word for a peat wetland, like a fen or bog. Human activity threatens wetlands. Rising sea levels caused by climate change can flood coastal wetlands and destroy these valuable habitats. Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have drained wetlands for agriculture and urban development and dammed the rivers which feed them. The loss of wetlands threatens the species who live there and risks losing the protection they offer. Since 1900, half the world’s wetlands have disappeared.

Sources: National Geographic, The Wildlife Trust, WWF

Mirror Test

Meet The Most Narcissistic Monkey On The Planet - Vocativ

The mirror test measures animal self-awareness. To pass, a creature must recognise itself in a mirror. Only 13 species, including humans, have so far.

In the test, scientists place a coloured mark on an animal’s forehead and put it in front of a mirror. Some animals ignore the mirror, others consider it a different creature. A small few will adjust themselves while looking in the mirror and try to remove the mark. Such a response indicates they know the creature in the mirror is them, and act accordingly. 

Gordon Gallup Jr. invented the test in 1970. He put chimpanzees in a room with a mirror. At first, they threatened their reflection but, after a time, started grooming and pulling faces. When Gallup put a red mark on one ear then removed the mirror, the chimpanzees continued to scratch and touch that ear. The test proves animal self-recognition and suggests self-awareness.

 Animals that have passed:

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  • humans
  • chimpanzees
  • bonobos
  • orangutans
  • gorillas
  • bottlenose dolphins
  • orcas
  • Asian elephants
  • Eurasian Magpies
  • pigeons
  • cleaner wrasses (a tropical reef cleaner fish)

Most gorillas fail the test. Eye contact is threatening for gorillas, so they may deliberately avoid looking at the mirror for long enough to recognise themselves.

Only one elephant, an Asian elephant in 2006 at Bronx Zoo, identified the X on its forehead after looking in a mirror. Elephant cognition evolved on a similar path to primates. 

Magpies pass every time. The corvid family, which includes ravens and crows, have the same brain-body ratio as primates. While Eurasian magpies are among the most intelligent animals on the planet, their intelligence evolved from a different source than humans and primates. 

In 1980, behavioural psychologist BF Skinner found pigeons could pass the test after extensive, scaffolded training. Untrained pigeons do not.

Human babies do not pass the test until between 12 and 24 months old. Studies show a discrepancy across different environments.

What do these creatures have in common? Animals that pass the test have a high body-brain ratio, advanced perception and cooperative social structures. 

The mirror test is not the only indicator of self-awareness. Dogs, for example, rely on scent, so instantly discount any image from being them because of the lack of associated smell. That doesn’t mean they are necessarily self-aware, but if they were, a mirror-test wouldn’t tell you.

Without self-recognition, however, there cannot be self-awareness. Distinguishing the animals who pass from their peers is a significant step in unravelling the mystery of consciousness.

Sources: Animal Cognition, Brittanica, Science Daily.