The Globalized Arctic

Image of Polar Bear thanks to

This month’s issue of National Geographic has an article, “Vikings and Native Americans,” which focuses on archaeologist Patricia Sutherland’s work on Viking sites in the Canadian Arctic, particularly at Tanfield Valley. Sutherland has found a number of sites in the Arctic that contain Viking items. Other lines of evidence now suggest that there was a long trading relationship between the Dorset peoples of the Canadian Arctic and the Viking settlements in Greenland. These exchanges may have included genes, as is suggested by evidence for First Nation’s ancestry amongst a small number of modern Icelanders. The most likely explanation was that a Native American women came to Iceland around 1000 AD, about the time that the Norse first traveled to the New World.  Peter Schledermann’s chapter, “Ellesmere: Vikings in the Far North,” in Vikings: the North Atlantic Saga details other evidence that the Norse traders left in the Canadian High Arctic.

The Arctic fascinates me because, like the Amazon, it is one of the two great remaining wildernesses in the Americas. Both regions are often depicted as being isolated from modernity. Yet in truth, the Arctic has long been the most globalized part of the Americas. In the east, of course, there was over four centuries of trade with the Norse settlements in Greenland before the 1500s, when other Europeans entered the Arctic. The Hudson Bay Company soon created forts throughout the Bay, from which trade routes ranged out throughout much of the northern Americas.

While this history is perhaps well known, people are less familiar with the trade routes and interconnections in the Western Americas. An archeological dig on the Seward peninsula in Alaska has found a belt buckle made in Asia in a 1000 year old site. At another site in Canada’s Yukon, 185 miles north of Whitehorse, archaeologists have found a 340 year old Chinese coin. This coin was likely brought by Russian traders, who exchanged goods with the Tlingit. While the fur trade with the Hudson Bay Company is well known in Canada, people are less familiar with the trade with Russia. But furs would leave the Yukon for Alaska, where they would be traded with Russians, who would bring them overland through Siberia, to be traded on the market in Western Europe. Alaska and the Yukon were not isolated worlds. Rather, they had long had trading networks that stretched West to Siberia, and beyond. The Inuit received iron in trade with their counterparts, the Siberian Chukchi, across the Bering Strait. These trading links are unsurprising, given the deep cultural links between the two regions. Recent work has suggested that the Na-Dene languages in the Americas are descended from a Central Siberian language called Ket. And in deep time, the two regions were linked by a land bridge called Beringia.

In an earlier post, I made the argument that Amazonia has never been isolated from global affairs. The same can be said of the Arctic. Both regions, are often portrayed as isolated worlds, long removed from modernity. Yet when we eat chocolate, we consume a product that came from the Ecuadoran Amazon to Mexico in precontact times, while corn made the trip in the other direction. The Amazon and the Arctic have long been affected by global trends. Indeed, few regions have been impacted by globalization for as long a historical period as the Arctic.

For more historical perspective on global affairs, look at the history chapter in our textbook. And I’ll look forward to learning more about Sutherland’s work in the future.

Update: If you are interested in the Canadian North and indigenous peoples, you might also like to read my new book, Dangerous Spirits: The Windigo in Myth and History. In Canada, you can find the book on Check out the “Look Inside” feature on that page to read selections from the book.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University


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