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Archeologists uncover Inuit driftwood house in Canada’s western Arctic

Marc Montgomery, Radio Canada International

For archaeologists and anthropologists, it’s an extremely exciting and rare find.

They have begun work on a rare site of driftwood houses used hundreds of years ago by Inuit in Canada’s western Arctic . In fact, the one being excavated this year is the first complete example of this type of structure found.

Max Friesen, a professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto, is leading the archaeological dig.

The houses are located in what might well have been the largest community of its type in the High Arctic. The site is near the Inuit community of Tuktoyaktuk in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

These cruciform houses were large, well-built structures using driftwood which floated down the Mackenzie River from the boreal forests farther south.

With a large central floor area, there were alcoves, or bench areas built on three sides, with an entrance tunnel on the fourth side, giving it it’s cruciform style.

Each house would have been home to two to four or more families.

Friesen says they would have been in use from approximately 500 years ago until the early 1900s, and he speculates they were abandoned for possibly two reasons. The first may have been that the Mackenzie River in that area may have silted up, pushing the beluga whales, a major food source, further away. The second reason may have been devastating epidemics that swept through the aboriginal communities in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

He says these houses and their artifacts are important links as it was around this time that the Inuit were encountering Europeans for the first time and could reveal how that contact may have influenced behavior and customs.

He also notes that the permafrost has kept the structures and artifacts in excellent condition.

However, he notes that the warming and changing climate is now posing a serious threat to this and many other shoreline sites.

Higher water levels, less ice, more storms and melting permafrost are all combining to create severe shore erosion.

He notes that in some places the shoreline is being eroded back at a rate of 16.4 feet a year.

Friesen plans to complete excavation at and around the site over the next couple of years before it’s washed away.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch News as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.