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A new study by Brown University researchers shows that the Dorset and Thule people—ancestors of today's Inuit—created spun yarn some 500 to 1,000 years before Vikings arrived in North America. The finding, made possible in part by a new method for dating fiber artifacts contaminated with oil, is evidence of independent, homegrown indigenous fiber technology rather than a transfer of knowledge from Viking settlers.
The study was led by Michele Hayeur Smith, a research associate at Brown's Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, who focused on artifacts from five Dorset and Thule archaeological sites in the eastern Canadian Arctic held in the Canadian Museum of History's collections. Co-authored with Kevin P. Smith, deputy director and chief curator of the Haffenreffer Museum, and Gørill Nilsen of the Arctic University of Norway, the research is changing the understanding of indigenous textile technology as well as the nature of the contact between Dorset and Thule peoples and the earliest European explorers of the eastern Canadian Arctic.
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Here, Hayeur Smith and Smith discuss the study, published in Journal of Archaeological Science, and what it means for understanding the history of the high Canadian Arctic.
Q: What was the impetus for undertaking this study?
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Michele Hayeur Smith (MHS): I am a specialist in Norse textiles, and I was researching the production and circulation of textiles from the Viking age to the 19th century. I started this project because it came to my attention that there were huge collections of pre-modern textiles in Iceland, which is where I started out. I was also interested in looking at women. Textiles happen to be a very gendered activity in Norse society—men had no involvement whatsoever with it. In Iceland, it became very important because it was a form of currency for almost 800 years: Everything was based on the value of cloth.
I eventually expanded...
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