What’s in a name? Part 2

Two weeks ago I brought you a post about the names used by archaeologists to identify the precontact groups in Newfoundland and Labrador. Archaeologists do not know what the people of these groups referred to themselves as. The name most Aboriginal people apply to themselves in their own language usually means something like ‘the people’ or ‘human’.

 Recognized Precontact Aboriginal groups in Newfoundland and Labrador

Newfoundland Labrador
Maritime Archaic (MA) Maritime Archaic (MA) (Earliest Settlers, First Explorers, Labrador Archaic)
Intermediate Period (IP) Intermediate Period (IP)
Pre-Inuit (P-I) Pre-Inuit (P-I)
Recent Period (RP) Recent Period (RP)

The table above shows the generally accepted sequence of precontact aboriginal groups in Newfoundland and Labrador’s precontact past. Two weeks ago, I tried to explain how archaeologists derived the names for the MA, IP, and RP. In this post, I’ll look at where the names for the Pre-Inuit & Thule came from.

Pre-Inuit Early & Late

According to the definitions I provided in my post two weeks ago for Traditions, Cultures, Complexes, and Phases, I see Pre-Inuit as the Tradition. The Pre-Inuit Tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador was divided into an Early and Late period by William Fitzhugh in 1980. The people of the Early Pre-Inuit Tradition were the first people whose culture was adapted to Arctic North America. Obviously, the Late Pre-Inuit Tradition refers to similarly adapted peoples who came into and adapted to Arctic North America at a later period. It is not clear if the people of the Early and Late periods are directly related (ancestor-descendant relationship).

In the early 1900s, the term Palaeoeskimo (today Pre-Inuit) was initially applied to a group of people who were thought to hunt musk-ox and were believed to be the ancestors of the present-day Inuit. Today, the term refers to a technology based on very small and finely made stone tools used by groups of people that spread eastward from Alaska. Although not as widely used today, the term Arctic small tool Tradition used to be applied to these groups because of the small jewel-like quality of their stone tools.

Dorset endblade on a finger tip.

Pre-Dorset Pre-Inuit

The earliest Culture in the Early Pre-Inuit Tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador is known as the Pre-Dorset (~4200-~3000 BP). The Pre-Dorset culture is seen on sites only in northern and central Labrador. There is a slightly earlier, but temporally and geographically overlapping, Pre-Inuit Culture which shows up in the Eastern Arctic and Greenland referred to as Independence I but it is not clear how they are related to the Pre-Dorset and they have never been positively identified in the province.

There is not a clear beginning for the term Pre-Dorset. The Dorset Culture was the first Pre-Inuit culture identified in the Arctic in 1925. The term Pre-Dorset came about as researchers began to identify the material culture that they knew was not Dorset and was older, hence the term Pre-Dorset.

Pre-Dorset endblade from Baffin Island. (Rast)
Pre-Dorset endblade from Baffin Island. (Rast)

Groswater Pre-Inuit

Near the end of the Pre-Dorset Culture period, archaeologists recognize a new Pre-Inuit Culture known as Groswater Pre-Inuit. Sites with Groswater occupations exist throughout the whole province from northern Labrador to southern Newfoundland during the period of ~3000 BP -~1800 BP. The Groswater Culture is the terminal manifestation of the Early Pre-Inuit Tradition in the province. According to the research done by Elaine Anton for her Master’s thesis, the Pre-Dorset and Groswater cultures were probably not related.

The term Groswater Pre-Inuit was first applied by William Fitzhugh in 1972 to sites he found in the Groswater Bay area of Labrador. Initially, he referred to the Culture as a Phase and named it Groswater Dorset because it was not well understood and, at the time,  he thought it was a localized Dorset variant. Today the Culture is known as Groswater Pre-Inuit and is not believed to be directly related to the Dorset Culture.

At around the same time that Fitzhugh identified the Groswater in central Labrador James Tuck was working in Saglek Bay northern Labrador. He discovered the same types of stone tools as Fitzhugh. Like Fitzhugh Tuck also recognized this group as something slightly different than regular Dorset.  At the time Tuck named the culture Early Dorset but they have since been recognized as Groswater Pre-Inuit.

Groswater Pre-Inuit toolkit (reproduction Rast)
Groswater Pre-Inuit toolkit (reproduction by Rast)

Dorset Pre-Inuit

The Dorset Pre-Inuit were the first group of Pre-Inuit’s to be recognized archaeologically. In 1925, archaeologist Diamond Jenness named the Cape Dorset culture after a collection of artifacts he had received from Cape Dorset, Nunavut. The Dorset Culture, the only manifestation of the Late Pre-Inuit Tradition, came to this province somewhere around 2000 years ago and remained here until about 800 years ago.

In 1939 & 1940, W. J. Wintemberg recognized the Dorset culture in collections from Newfoundland and Labrador. By the 1960s the Dorset Culture on the island was known as the Newfoundland Dorset, a name applied by Elmer Harp. The name has since been shortened to Dorset.

Throughout the Eastern Arctic, the Dorset Culture has also been divided into Complexes or Phases with the names Early, Middle and Late being applied to variations in the Dorset Culture. All three manifestations were in Labrador while the Middle Dorset are spread across the entire province having also been found on the French islands of St. Pierre & Miquelon.

 Dorset Pre-Inuit toolkit (reproduction Rast)
Dorset Pre-Inuit toolkit (reproduction by Rast)


The people of the Thule Tradition are the ancestors of the Inuit living in Labrador and the Arctic. The culture is named after Thule, Greenland where the culture was first identified.

In this province, Thule sites are only known from northern Labrador with the earliest dated sites coming from around 800 years ago. There is some confusion about the Thule Culture in Labrador. Some researchers have even suggested that the Thule had contact Europeans before reaching Labrador and that technically they should be considered Inuit by the time they reach Labrador.

Thule Harpoon (reproduction by Rast)
Thule Harpoon (reproduction by Rast)

Tuck, James A. & William Fitzhugh 1986  Palaeo-Eskimo Traditions of Newfoundland-Labrador: Re-Appraisal. Palaeo-Eskimo Cultures in Newfoundland, Labrador and Ungava. Reports in Archaeology No. 1, Memorial University of Newfoundland, pp 161-167.

One thought on “What’s in a name? Part 2

  1. Here he goes again, you probably saying, but that “knife” there, reproduced, sure makes me think it is somehow related to our “Crooked Knife”. (Our, meaning Algonquian peoples)

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