The earliest archaeological evidence attributed to the Dorset culture was discovered at Cape Dorset, on Baffin Island, whence the designation “Dorset” used by archaeologists. The Dorsets, referred to as the Tuniit in Inuit legends, excelled in seal and walrus hunting. They obtained oil from these animals and burned it in soapstone (steatite) lamps as a source of light.
The first signs of the Dorset culture appeared during a period of climatic cooling that began about 3 000 years BP. The Dorsets – or Tuniit, as they are termed by present-day Inuit – were well adapted to a colder climate and soon occupied the greater part of the Eastern Arctic, even reaching the Lower North Shore of Quebec and the southeast coast of Newfoundland. In Nunavik, the oldest occupations are associated with the Tuniit date to around 2 500 years BP.
The Tuniit hunted a variety of marine animals (seals, walrus and belugas), as well as animals found inland (caribou, small mammals, migratory birds and river fish). Like their predecessors, the Tuniit people used tools fashioned out of diverse raw materials. Their stone tools consisted mainly of small triangular projectile points, biface points, burins, scrapers, side scrapers, adzes and microblades (little stone artifacts, twice as long as they are wide, with two parallel cutting edges).
The Tuniit also developed an impressive tool-making industry using organic material such as bone, antler, ivory and wood. These implements ranged from harpoon heads and barbed projectile points to snow knives for building igloos, sled runners, ice-creepers and bone needles.
Soapstone lamps and dogsleds appeared for the first time during the Dorset period. Various forms of artistic expression developed within the Tuniit culture, and Dorset sites reveal tiny carved figurines representing animals, humans and human-animal combinations. Rock engravings representing anthropomorphic faces are also associated with the Tuniit.
Although they were nomads, the Tuniit led more sedentary lives than their predecessors had. This reduced mobility is reflected in the traces they left – the remains of their constructions are more elaborate, there is more material uncovered on archaeological sites and their dwellings are more permanent. While they continued to use tents in summer, they also built semi-subterranean houses in boulder fields and on ancient beaches. The fact that they had snow knives suggests that the Tuniit built igloos in the colder months. Longhouses made their appearance near the end of the Dorset period. These rectangular houses, measuring from 15 to 35 metres in length by 4 to 6 metres in width, could easily shelter eight to ten families. Tuniit dwellings are often associated with various secondary structures, such as caches for food, material, traps or hunting gear and inuksuit.← Previous period: Pre-Dorsets • 4 000 to 2 500 BP