Resources / Frequently Asked Questions


General Information
Eskimos, Innu and Cultures of the Eurasian Arctic
The Vikings and the Western Settlement Period

Map of the Arctic
Help Printing


What is the Arctic?
There are many ways that scientists define the Arctic. The Arctic Circle is technically everything above 66 degrees, 30 minutes North Latitude. However, other definitions rely on the presence of tundra vegetation, distribution of 'Arctic' animals like the walrus, the presence of permafrost, the temperature of the region or even the southern limit of pack ice during the winter. In fact, the Arctic can even be defined as an extremely dry, cold desert. For the purposes of the Arctic Studies Center, we identify the Arctic on the basis of the cultures and peoples as well as animals adapted to Arctic lands and resources.

Where is the North Pole?
There are actually two North Poles: a geographic North Pole and a magnetic North Pole. The geographic North Pole is defined as the northern end of the Earth's axis, from which all directions on Earth lie south. While the geographic North Pole is the true northernmost point on the earth, the magnetic North Pole is recognized as North by magnetic compasses. Both poles, however, are located in different positions. The magnetic North Pole continually moves across the Arctic and currently lies in northern Canada, about 1000 miles south of the geographic North Pole!

What are conditions like at the North Pole?
Unlike the South Pole, which is located on the Antarctic continent, the North Pole is located in the middle of the Arctic Ocean and is surrounded by Alaska and the countries of Canada, Greenland and Russia. The Arctic Ocean is about 4000 meters deep at the North Pole, and most areas are covered with 2-3 meter thick ice floes. Generally, temperatures during the winter months, when there is no sun, hover at -30 Celsius, whereas temperatures during the summer can be as high as 0 Celsius.

Is the Arctic all ice?
Contrary to popular belief, the Arctic is not all snow and ice. During the winter it is true that much of the land in the far north is under snow and ice. However, a large portion of the Arctic is comprised of forested and tundra regions where numerous plants, shrubs and trees grow.

Are there cities in the Arctic?
While the Arctic may seem like quite an inhospitable place to live, there are several large cities inside the Arctic Circle, including Barrow, Alaska; Tromso, Norway; and Muramansk and Salekhaard in Russia. In addition to these large cities, there are numerous other large towns and villages, making the Arctic Circle and sub-arctic regions far from being the barren wastelands that people often imagine.

How large is the Arctic?
The Arctic covers a huge area, almost equal in size to the entire North American continent!


What kinds of plants grow in the Arctic?
Several species of plants grow in the Arctic region. South of the arctic treeline lies the boreal forest, comprised of spruce, fir, larch, mountain ash and birch trees and plants like fireweed. To the north of the treeline, in the arctic tundra, numerous plants thrive such as birch and willows shrubs, as well as heath, lingonberries, bilberries, blueberries, alpine bearberries, bake-apples, arctic poppies, tundra grasses like cottongrass, lichens and mosses.

What is an Ice Age and when was the last one?
Throughout the Earth's history its climate has fluctuated between periods of warmth and periods of sustained cold known as ice ages. An ice age is composed of periods of warmer weather called interglacials that last 10,000-40,000 years, and periods of intense cold (glaciations) in which glaciers advance over much of the northern parts of continents. People normally think of these glaciations or glacial periods as an ice age. Although the last of these glacial periods ended 10,000 years ago, we do in fact live in what scientists call the Holocene, an interglacial period of the Pleistocene ice age.

What is summer like in the Arctic? Winter?
Summers in the Arctic begin around mid-July and typically last until the end of August. During this time, little precipitation falls and the sun never sets. In the winter, once again little snow or rain falls, but the sun never rises and temperatures in the middle of the Arctic winter may go down to 40 below Celsius!

Why are there so few trees in the Arctic?
Trees are unable to survive in the high Arctic because of the extreme low temperatures, high winds and lack of sufficient rainfall. The point beyond which trees are unable to survive is called the treeline, and some researchers use it as the basis for defining where the Arctic begins.

General Information

What peoples and cultures live in the Arctic? Where?
Many cultures and groups live in the lands surrounding the Arctic Ocean. Among these are the Eskimo (comprised of the Inuit, Inupiat, Yupik and several other groups), who range from Alaska to Canada and Greenland, the Saami (previously called the Lapps) of Scandinavia, the Nenets of Northwest Russia, the Sakha (Yakut) of Russia and the Chukchi of Siberia.

How long have people lived in the Arctic?
People have inhabited various regions of the Arctic for thousands of years. The earliest known evidence of humans in the Arctic is from 40,000 years ago in Western Siberia. The earliest presence of peoples in North America dates back 15,000 years when humans inhabited Alaska. Researchers believe that Greenland and the Canadian Arctic were settled 11,000 years after Alaska, approximately 4,000 years ago.

How do people get around in the Arctic?
There are several ways people travel in the Arctic. Skiis, kayaks and snowshoes are all forms of transportation invented by Arctic peoples. Today, snowmobiles and fiberglass boats are the most common means of transport throughout the region. However, sleds, skiis, snowshoes and kayaks are still in use.

How has human behavior adapted to life in the Arctic?
According to researchers, humans have developed two major strategies to survive the harsh arctic climate: a terrestrial adaptation and a northern arctic maritime adaptation. The earliest archaeological evidence shows that inhabitants in the north utilized large terrestrial mammals such as caribou, reindeer and musk ox. Researchers have also found evidence of a northern arctic maritime adaptation: the hunting of sea mammals such as seals, walruses and whales dating back 6,000 years ago and perhaps even earlier. Despite the heavy reliance on either terrestrial or maritime resources, fishing and hunting of birds were probably crucial adaptations for all peoples in the Arctic.

When was the first contact between Native peoples and Europeans?
In 1000 AD the Norse, also called Vikings, sailed to Greenland and made history by becoming the first Europeans to establish settlements in the New World. The Icelandic Sagas and archaeological remains indicate that the Norse in North America and Greenland, from the beginning of their settlements to their demise in the 14th century, had varied relationships with indigenous groups whom they called skraeling. Hence, the first known contact between European explorers and Indigenous groups to America occurred 500 years before Columbus sailed to the Caribbean!

What kinds of houses do people use in the Arctic?
In prehistoric times, people constructed houses out of many types of materials including hides, whale bone, sod, drift wood and snow. Today greater contact with outsiders enables people in the Arctic to construct houses similar to ones you would find in any Western city.

What are shamans?
The name shaman comes from the Evenk language, meaning "excited or frenzied person," and is used by anthropologists to describe those who fill the role of spiritual leaders, healers or advisers. Shamans are found in many indigenous societies across the world. Often a person becomes a shaman because of family tradition, the occurrence of an extraordinary event like a childhood illness or a dream that gave them insight into their life. Among peoples of the Arctic, shamans can be male or female, and often what distinguishes them from the rest of their community are the close relationships they share with spirit guides and helpers, who assist the shaman in protecting and ensuring the health and welfare of their community.

Without burning wood, how do people in the Arctic keep warm or light their homes in the winter?
While there is a variety of plant life in the arctic tundra as well as small amounts of driftwood, wood was not readily available to northern peoples. Instead of burning wood for heat or light at night, people in the north used the oil from the fat of seals or other marine mammals as their primary source of fuel for lamps and fires.

What do people eat in the Arctic?
Even though the environment in the Arctic prevents people from growing their own food, people still have a varied diet. Peoples in arctic regions have traditionally eaten a variety of fish, seals, whales and caribou, as well as the numerous types of plants and delicious berries that grow naturally in the Arctic. In addition, Eurasian Arctic peoples adopted reindeer domestication as their main subsistence pattern about 2,000 years ago.

What kinds of shoes do people wear in the Arctic?
Because of the very cold conditions, it's important to have extremely warm shoes. Traditionally people wore skin boots, which are very warm and adaptable. The warmest boots are made from caribou or reindeer skin, although people on the coast utilized polar bear or seal skin because they are naturally waterproof. Often fish skin was used for the soles, as the scales provide good traction on the ice and snow.

Eskimos, Innu and Cultures of the Eurasian Arctic

Is there a difference between 'Eskimo' and 'Inuit'?
The term "Eskimo", which is used to describe those who live in the high Arctic regions of Canada, Alaska and Greenland, was a name given to these groups by subarctic Indians and was later adopted by western outsiders. Eskimo has several possible meanings, including 'one who speaks another language', 'one who is from another country' or even 'one who has unusual behavior' or 'one who eats raw meat.' While the term "Eskimo" is still used as a general name for all of the groups of the Western Arctic, there are numerous unique groups classified as 'Eskimo'. Today, many of these groups, like the Inuit of northern Canada, the Kalaalit of Greenland, the Inupiat of Northern Alaska and the Yupik of southwestern Alaska, prefer to be called by their own specific, indigenous names.

Who are the Inuit and where do they live?
The Inuit is the preferred term for Eskimo groups who live in the northern Canadian Arctic and Greenland. The Inuit and their Thule ancestors have lived in the eastern Arctic for approximately 1000 years. Today, most Inuits live in towns.

Who are the Innu and where do they live?
The Innu are the Native Algonquin Indian peoples of Nitassinan (the subarctic interior of Quebec and northern Labrador). Since about 1960, most Innu have abandoned life in the country and now reside primarily in towns.

How do people in the Arctic get enough Vitamin C and D if there is little sun and a limited amount of fresh fruits and vegetables?
While the sun (which is necessary to produce vitamin D) may not be out long in the winter, the extended periods of daylight in the arctic summer more than compensate, allowing people to get plenty of vitamin D. And although there are scarcely any fresh fruits or vegetables available year round to eat in the Arctic, people gain the necessary amount of vitamin C through the consumption of raw meats, which are naturally high in vitamin C.

Why don't Eskimos move south to warmer lands?
There is no reason for people in the Arctic to move south because northern people are well adapted to the numerous resources of the Arctic.

What do people in the Arctic wear?
Traditional clothing in the Arctic consists of tailored skin clothing. The insulation and warmth of this clothing protects people from the harsh elements. Caribou and polar bear skins provide the most warmth, but seal and fish skin were also used. Bird skins and feathers sometimes were used in addition to the above materials for their decorative appeal. One specific piece of traditional clothing are parkas made from gut skin. Constructed from mammal intestines that are sewn together, these parkas were marvelously lightweight and even water repellent! To view examples of clothing used by people in Alaska and Siberia explore the Crossroads of Continents

What kinds of games do the Eskimos play?
Eskimo adults and children play a variety of games, including Eskimo wrestling and dice throwing. One popular game that children in the Western Arctic play is called story-knifing. Here, children use a story knife to draw a series of shapes and figures in the sand, using their drawings to tell elaborate, fanciful stories. Eskimo also have toys such as bull roarers, Eskimo "yo-yo's", children's dolls and miniature toys designed to teach children how to take on adult roles like sewing or hunting.

What Arctic technologies do we use today?
Many technologies developed by people from the North have been adopted, including snow shoes, sleds, skiis and even snow goggles, an important article of equipment whenever you're out in the snow in the bright spring sunshine!

What do the Eskimos make their tools out of?
Tools are made from many material such as ivory, stone, wood, driftwood and animal parts like bones, skin, sinew, fur and feathers.

How do the Inuit bury their dead?
In the past, the Inuit buried their dead under cairns (structures of piled stones) on the surface of the land or ice. Today, Inuit bury their dead according to their religious beliefs, as many have converted to Christianity.

Do the Eskimo make music?
Like peoples all over the world, the Eskimo make their own musical instruments and have devised their own styles of playing and singing. Bull roarers and drums are commonly found across all musical traditions in the North. One specific form of music among the eastern Inuit is called throat singing. This distinctive tradition involves two people standing close together, facing each other mouth-to-mouth. They use deep abdominal muscle contractions and rapid breathing to synchronize their movements and create the impression of a single instrument. Follow the links to listen to the type of music made by the Yupik and the Alutiiq peoples of Alaska.

What peoples came before the Eskimo?
Before the Eskimo many different Prehistoric cultures lived in Arctic regions across Eurasia and North America.

How many words do the Eskimo have for snow?
A popular myth claims that the Eskimos have 50, 100 or even 400 words for snow in their language, compared to English's one word. Like all myths, this one is not exactly true. When you consider how many words there are in English to describe snow (such as ice, slush, sleet, hail, snow flake, powder, frozen water, etc.) it becomes evident that to count all of the words that people in snowy cultures have for snow would be impossible. Not only is it impossible to define what would count as a substitute for 'snow,' there exists no single 'Eskimo' language. At most, linguists argue that out of all of the languages of Eskimo groups, there are 4 root words for snow, to which various adjectives are added.

Are the peoples who live in Siberia and the Eurasian Arctic like the peoples who live in North America?
In early times, cultures on both sides of the Bering Strait (Siberia and North America) were similar in terms of way of life. However, the introduction of reindeer breeding in the Eurasian Arctic 2,000 years ago caused the cultures in these regions to diverge. Explore the Crossroads of Continents exhibit to learn more about the cultures in this unique region.

The Vikings and the Western Settlement Period

Who were the Vikings?
The Vikings were a seafaring people living along the long coast of the Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway and Sweden) between 750 and 1050 AD. The term Viking more specifically refers to the part-time warrior/raiders who left their homelands and plundered the riches of France, England and other parts of Europe.

Where did the Vikings come from and what happened to them?
Vikings developed in Scandinavia from the earlier clan-based cultures that formerly lived there. After raiding Europe, many Vikings brought back ideas that changed their culture, making them more like Europeans. By 1050 AD, Viking culture had undergone significant change, especially the conversion of many to Christianity. Afterwards, the descendants of the Vikings called themselves Norwegians, Danes, Swedes or Scandinavians.

How did the Vikings bury their dead?
Viking burials often used boats like we use caskets today. For the highest status people, large ships were often buried with the dead. Some Vikings preferred to be cremated. But even then, the ashes were buried with artifacts the dead had used in their life, perhaps because the Vikings believed they could reuse these objects in the next life. To learn more about Viking ship burials follow the link.

Did the Vikings really wear helmets with horns?
No helmets with horns have ever been found in all of the Viking warrior gear that researchers have found. In fact, Vikings rarely wore helmets at all!

When did the Vikings live?
Historians say the Viking Age began in 793 AD with the raid on Lindisfarne monastery in England, and ended in 1066 AD with the defeat of the Viking king Harald by English king Harold.

What kinds of games did the Vikings play?
The Vikings played a lot of card and board games, especially during the winter. One of the games Vikings used to play is a board game called Hnefatafl which means "king's board or game" in Old Norse. This chess-like game of strategy simulated a Viking raid and the object of the game was to trap the King's piece.

How clean were the Vikings?
Artifacts found by archaeologists include many combs, pins, earwax removers and even an ironing board! It seems the Vikings were much cleaner than we think.

How long did their settlement of Greenland last?
Viking settlement of Greenland lasted for approximately 300 years. In 985 AD, Erik the Red became the first Viking to discover Greenland. From that initial settlement, the colony in Greenland grew to over 300 farms, 22 churches and a nunnery. However, settlement of Greenland collapsed in the 14th century and the colonies were never heard from again after 1408 AD.

Were the Vikings ferocious people?
Viking pillaging and raids were not a sign of an unusually warlike people. Europe at this time was a dangerous place all around. However, the Vikings did have a reputation for ruthlessness among their European victims. Intense political rivalry between Norse chieftains created a constant demand for precious goods, most of which came from their raids upon European towns and villages. Successful leaders then gave away these precious items to their followers in exchange for their loyalty, so they became highly motivated plunderers. Vikings, however, were farmers and fishermen foremost and were not always out plundering foreign cities.

Did Vikings ever reach North America?
Until the 1960s, scholars had no evidence other than the sagas that proved Vikings had reached North America. However, the discovery of Viking house foundations and artifacts at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada offers proof that Vikings did, in fact, reach North America 1000 years ago!

What happened to the Vikings' Greenland colony?
Researchers are unsure of what became of the Vikings' Greenland colonies. Some believe that the colonies collapsed as a result of a dramatically cooling climate. Others propose that colonists suffered from overpopulation, were overcome by indigenous groups and left for North America or Iceland, or that trade with Europe robbed the colony of extra resources. Most believe a combination of causes added to the deteriorating situation, with no single cause being the decisive factor.

How did the Vikings earn a living?
Throughout their territories, from Scandinavia to North America, Viking daily life revolved around tending to their herds of animals, especially cattle, sheep, pigs and goats. Some crops were grown, such as peas and cabbage, but most crops were used to feed the animals. Vikings also forged their own iron from local iron sources, and there were specialized blacksmiths as well as other craftsman such as wood carvers. Surpluses of these goods were often traded with neighbors.