Dorset Culture and polar bears

I receive fascinating emails every day from readers of The Memory Code. Every now and then someone goes a lot further. Rob Smith was one of those people. He carved an absolutely delightful polar bear in the manner of the Dorset  of Igloolik in Canada, who lived between 700 and 2,500 years ago. And then he sent it to me as a present. How lucky am I?

This story highlights the way indigenous art forms are so often assumed to be fantastical rather than critical objects of importance to rational knowledge. My bias is showing in this post!

Rob’s exquisitely carved bear is an exact replica of the objects found in one of the few Dorset graves, as reported in the article Human Dorset Remains from Igloolik, Canada referenced at the end of this blog.*

The tiny ivory plug holds the ochre in place which is stored in the small cavity in the bear’s neck under the wooden plug. Rob did an ivory plug as well, as some bears had ivory plugs. They would not have both at the same time. My little bear is 12 centimetres long.

Writer and archaeology enthusiast from Toronto, Ontario, Eve Richardson, pointed me to the following report from the Canadian Museum of History about the Dorset Culture and their many representations of polar bears.

Clicking on the image will take you to the full article

Fascinated by the Dorset bears, Matthew Betts, contacted Ian Stirling, a Scientist Emeritus with the Canadian Wildlife Service and expert on polar bears. Betts wrote:

I sent him multiple photographs of the carvings, and he quickly determined that the Dorset were depicting polar bears in natural poses — and, moreover, that almost all of the art showed polar bears in hunting stances related to stalking and hunting their preferred prey, seals.

Betts continued with a new question:

These insights were novel because previously the polar bear carvings had been interpreted as portraying bears in fantastical poses, representing “spirit” bears moving between spiritual realms. Some had even been interpreted as “flying bears.” What did this new information mean for the interpretation of Dorset spirituality?

By always focussing on the spirituality – which is the area which differentiates us most – we cloud our respect for the intellectual achievements we respect so highly such as that of scientists like Ian Stirling. Betts concludes:

I believe the polar bear effigies may have been used to remind and teach the Dorset the proper methods of hunting seals — using stillness, stealth and cunning. The carvings may also have been used in a ceremony to draw hunting prowess from the effigies and the polar bears they represented, to increase the hunter’s chance of success.

Given my personal bias, I want much more acknowledgement of the likely depth of knowledge of the bears and the environment encoded with the oral tradition of the Dorset Culture. I want the hunters’ likely increase in success to be linked to their ceremonies in which their rational knowledge and well-honed hunting strategies were conveyed.

Meanwhile, my little Dorset bear sits on my desk to remind me not only of the intellect of indigenous cultures but also what wonderful readers I have!

* The article which Rob Smith used to aid the carving of my precious little bear:

Human Dorset Remains from Igloolik, Canada
Niels Lynnerup, Jørgen Meldgaard, Jan Jakobsen, Martin Appelt, Anders Koch and Bruno Frøhlich, Arctic, Vol. 56, No. 4 (Dec., 2003), pp. 349-358.

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