Social and ritual determinants of whale bone transport at a classic Thule winter site in the Canadian Arctic



Recent research has demonstrated that patterning related to harvesting selectivity and architectural bone utilization persists in the surface distribution of bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) bones at classic Thule sites in the Canadian central Arctic, despite scavenging by later non-whaling Inuit groups. Since skeletal riders with minimal architectural or artifactual utility are associated with carcass portions that were socially and ritually prized ethnographically in North Alaska, this surface record may also preserve spatial structure relating to loci of high status settlement and/or ceremonial activity within sites. Close to 3400 bowhead bones were mapped at the major Thule winter village of Qariaraqyuk, southeast Somerset Island. The results of a principal components analysis of the element distributions are consistent with expectations for special treatment of bowhead flippers, tails, and tongues. These results are supported by excavation data which reveal that flipper and tongue bones were preferentially discarded in the vicinity of wealthy whaling households and a major ceremonial structure. Contrary to the longstanding belief that Thule whale bone assemblages are hopelessly compromised by prehistoric and historic bone transport, these assemblages hold great promise for investigating Thule social and ritual practices. Copyright © 2002 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.