The equator-ward limit of Tundra coincides approximately with the warmest isotherm of 10°C (50°F), which in the Northern Hemisphere marks a boundary between the Tundra and the Taiga climate.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the Tundra region, excluding the Arctic Ocean, covers about 5 million sq. kms. The habitation area of Eskimos extends over four countries: United States, Canada, Russia and Greenland.
The Aleutian Islands, Alaska, Northern Canada, Victoria, Melcille, Baffin Islands, Greenland, Russian Arctic Islands (Novaya-Zemlya, Severnya-Zemlya etc.) and northern and north-eastern parts of Siberia up to the Bering-Strait.
Of at least 120,000 Inuits in this region, the greater part lives south of Arctic Circle, about 50,000 in Greenland, 42,000 in the Aleutian Islands, 25,000 in Canada and 1,500 in the north-eastern Siberia (Russia).
The dominant ethnic groups who oscillate in the tundra region are Inuits (Eskimos) in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Eastern Russia; Aleuts in Aleutian Islands and Alaska; and Yuits and Chukchis in Siberia.
Despite harsh environment, very low temperatures, snow blizzards, and little winter daylight, there is a sizeable population of hunters and food gatherers in the Tundra region at present and their ancestors had been living there for over more than ten thousand years before present.
2. Physical Environment:
As stated at the outset, the elements of weather and factors of climate impose special conditions on the life of men, animals and plants.
The Tundra is low, flat, treeless plains where the ground remains frozen except for a few inches of the surface. In the Tundra region, especially in the Arctic zone, the long northern winter of shrunken days and prolonged darkness is followed by a brief summer, when the hours of daylight are equally prolonged, the radiant heat then has considerable warming power, the ice floes melt and open water flanks the shore in the vicinity of Arctic Circle.
There is about a month of continuous daylight at mid-summer, while at mid-winter the sun is above the horizon for only about an hour. Continuous night for several months has an adverse psychological effect on the body and mind of the people.
Explorers who have wintered among the Eskimos testify to the depressing influence of the long night, which gradually undermines the temperament and morale of even those most adapted to the conditions.
The darkness and close confinement which it entails frequently bring on mental disorders, fits of madness or suicide due to neurasthenia. In fact, to the Eskimos, the polar night brings pallor, insomnia, indolence, dyspepsia and anaemia. The return of daylight renews vitality among them almost to excess.
The winters are extremely severe. The severity of winter freezes all water surfaces for seven or eight months of the year. The Siberian Tundra records one of the lowest temperatures in the world. At the mouth of the Yana River, the January temperature reads -51°C while in the Verkhoyansk it reads -60°C.
The lowest recorded temperature south of Verkhoyansk was -78°C. In this area of Central Siberia, there are only about seventy days in the year that are free of frost, and during this short period, although there is often almost continuous sunshine and the weather is often sultry, the soil thaws only to a depth of two or three feet. The rivers are ice-free for only about one-third of the year.
In Canada, the winters are less intense than that of Siberia. In the Arctic Archipelago of Canada, the mean January temperature reads -20°C. The main danger to the inhabitants of Tundra region is from high winds, blizzards and storms. The gales and blizzards are a serious threat to the nervous and thermic balance of the body.
Men who have successfully endured the lower temperatures in calm weather have been known to die as a result of ‘wind-chill’ during violent storms.
Travelers say that a temperature of -51°C in calm weather is borne more easily than -34°C in tempestuous winds. Man’s most terrible enemy is the blizzard, the purga, in Siberia, which envelops the traveler in whirling snow and makes it impossible for him to find his way.
On such occasions, even the dogs’ scent is often at fault and the animals refuse to obey. The wisest course is to stop and wait the end of the storm.
It is impossible to light a fire, for a match is extinguished at once by gusts and the fuel blown away. Sledges are set up as a wind break, and the men shelter in their fur-lined sleeping bags. If the storm does not last too long, they may by this means, escape being frozen to death.
In the Tundra region, on account of the cold and the high latitudes, rain and snowfall are actually small, but snow lies throughout the nine months’ winter and is piled into deep drifts by the Arctic gales.
As temperatures rise towards the end of May, snow and ice melt. The low-lying country becomes a vast stretch of lake studded marsh traversed by innumerable stream channels and land travel becomes almost impossible.
The hardy northern trees, stone pine, larch, birch and alder, cloth the mountain slopes and the more northerly country at their feet with fairly closes forest.
Over greater parts occur sedge grasses, mosses, lichens and low berry-bearing bushes. These burst suddenly into life when the short summer begins and support the animals, which then move out over the Tundra in surprising numbers.
One of the characteristic features of all Tundra vegetation is that the plants are all dwarfs. In the Siberian Tundra, it has been observed that one-third of the shrubs are between 15 and 40 cms tall. The grass is sometimes higher than these dwarf shrubs. As for the mosses, they are often only a few millimeters in height.
Like the flora, the fauna adapts itself to the cold. Warm blooded animals do not practice hibernation owing to the very low temperatures, but their bodies are covered with thick fur of closely set, very fine hair as in the case of Arctic hare and ermine, or with a coarse coat like that of the reindeer or musk-ox.
To this protective covering is added a thick layer of fat, which in the seal may be as much as 10 cms. In the herbivorous animals, this reserve of fatty matter forms during the summer. Chief among the mammals are the Arctic hare, Arctic foxes, and the snowy owl which develop a white coat that makes them difficult to be seen against the snow.
The polar bears, elk, and reindeer and great flocks of geese, duck and ptarmigans appear almost miraculously to be preyed upon by the wolverine and sable as well as by man.
In the forest to the south, the black bear, musk deer, rabbits, squirrels and mountain sheep are found. Mosquitoes can make one’s life miserable in the summer season.
Although salmon are rare, a large number of other fish ascend the rivers in spring for long distances, returning to the sea in the late summer before the rivers freeze again.
Seal and walrus are the main sea mammals. Every year, in the breeding season (June-August), they gather in enormous herds on the sloping beaches of Arctic islands.
In these islands, sealers kill them in thousands. In Antarctica Ocean, sea-lion or eared seal and in the Arctic Ocean the polar-bear are the main beasts. When intense cold deprives the polar-bear of all sources of food, it makes a nest in the snow and hibernates for several months.
The outstanding feature of both the fauna and the flora of the cold region is their poverty. The vegetation and animal worlds alike comprise a considerable number of individuals, but these belong to a very few species. In general, the more severe the cold, the fewer the species
During the summer, a number of edible berries, roots and vegetables are also carefully collected by women. But these are obtained only in relative small quantities, are luxuries, and do not add very substantially to the diet.
In the winter season, the Eskimo families assemble in early winter in settlements along the shore, or on the floe ice; here they remain until March or April. At the advent of spring, they begin to scatter. Hunting of seal is the dominant economic activity during winter season.
The seals feeding fairly close inshore are compelled to establish breathing holes through the floes. These holes can be scented by the Eskimo dog.
The hunter has to wait in the raw cold of the short Arctic winter day. Every seal will usually have a number of blow holes which it visits in turn at intervals throughout the day; the vigil at any one hole may therefore last several hours before the seal appears.
When the hunter is sure that the muzzle of his prey is squarely below the hole he raises the harpoon and thrust it into the muzzle of the seal.
Being hit, the seal plunges madly, the sinew line runs out. The Eskimos play it carefully, tires it finally, hacking at the ice to enlarge the hole, and drags the exhausted seal to the surface. Hunting by this way is known as maupok hunting, which literally means “he waits”.
As in winters the daylight is short, the camp must usually be established on the ice itself, as the hunter can rarely use his sledge or travel safely more than a few kilometers from the settlement. Since it is difficult to obtain supplies for more than a few days ahead in winter, a period of severe blizzard or even fog may bring a camp to the verge of famine.
Death by starvation is a constant danger in the winter season. Owing to the extremely cold conditions and non-availability of cereals, the Eskimos eat whale, seal and bear. They can digest quantities of fat that would be impossible to other races. They consume precisely those foods capable of producing the greatest amount of energy.
The seal provides not only food but fuel. Wood is not available and seal blubber (fat) is far superior as fuel to the fat of reindeer which is hunted in summer. It burns more readily and clearly and gives out greater heat.
4. Racial Features:
The Eskimos are Mongoloid by race. They are a short-statured people with flat but narrow faces, small snub noses, yellow-brown skin colour and coarse straight black hair. Their clothes are of reindeer and other furs.
A sack-like coat of reindeer hide reaching to the knees, with long sleeves and tail, is the main garment, and during the colder spells, two or more than two hide fur coats are worn one above the other.
A long front apron of hide also hangs down from the neck; the lower part is usually decorated with elaborate trimmings of variously colored fur and hair.
One of the most striking aspects of the traditional Eskimo culture is its relative homogeneity across more than 8,000 kms (5,000 miles).
The main patterns of culture religious, social and economic are much the same. Their main dialects are Inupik (Greenland and western Alaska) and the Yupik (south-west Alaska and Siberia).
The most striking fact of the Eskimo culture is the elaborate nature of their habitations, implements and weapons. The Eskimos, living in the severe environment, lack almost everywhere wood which is so invaluable a material for most peoples of lowly economy; bone, stone and hide, and even snow and ice must take its place.
Some of the Eskimos who live along the shores construct permanent stone house. The stone houses are rectangular in shape, three or four yards across, with a long, narrow entrance passage.
The passage and a central aisle in the chamber are excavated in the ground, but the floor of the aisle stands about a foot higher than the passage to exclude cold draught.
The bedding is laid out at the back, the sides being reserved for cooking and stores, one for each of the two families that usually occupy a house.
Around the circumference of the chamber and for a few feet along the outer passage, a walling stone or rods rises to a height of five or six feet.
This is covered by rafters of whale bone ribs, or occasionally, of drift-wood, set lengthwise and lashed to a curved rib in front. The rafters are covered with a double layer of seal skins with moss between.
The migratory Eskimos construct igloos (snow houses). The igloo closely follows the plan of the stone house, but the large blocks of snow, cut from a drift of fine grained compacted snow with a bone of ivory knife, are laid spirally and sloping inwards to build up a dome without any scaffolding.
Each block is rapidly and skillfully cut out by eye to fit in its place with the right slope and to afford a firm foundation for later courses. The final key block in the dome is lowered into position from outside.
Any crevices are tightly packed with snow and the main structure is complete. In some areas, the main chamber is lined with skins held in position by sinew cords passing through the walls of the dome and held by toggles. A considerable space is left between the skin ceiling and the snow roof.
With such a lining and an air exit hole in the roof, a temperature of ten to twenty degrees above freezing can be maintained without serious melting of the igloo, since there is always cool air between it and the interior.
A temporary small igloo of about two metres can be built in about an hour or so by a single man while on a journey and camping for the night. Where several families are camping together, a large chamber is often built as a meeting place for singing and dancing and witch doctors’ exhibitions, while several dwelling chambers built around are connected to it by galleries.
The non-availability of wood is met by using the animal fat so abundantly provided by the blubber of seals.
This is burned with a row of moss or cotton grass wicks in a shallow tray hollowed from the soft soap stone. Food when not eaten raw is boiled in a deep rectangular kettle. Clothing and other goods which need to be dried are placed on a netting tray set over the kettle.
Reindeer and caribou hides provide the clothing of Eskimos. The hide of these animals is warmer, lighter, and suppler than the seal skin. In higher latitudes, polar bear fur affords clothing for severe conditions. The Eskimo garments are carefully cut out and tailored on established patterns both for men and women.
For protection against water and damp, waterproof suits of gut are made. Clothing is made by women. It is finally stitched with sinew thread and often beautifully finished with border strips of contrasting colours. To protect themselves from snow-blindness, they wear slit goggles of ivory.
For travelling, the Eskimos use sledge. The sledges are drawn by dog-team. The sledge is generally built of whale-bone or of wood where available.
The sledge may be of different sizes, but a useful one is of about five metres length. The dog-teams require great skill in its handling.
The strongest and most spirited dog has the longest trace is allowed to run a few feet in advance of the rest as a leader, while the weaker and more unruly dogs are kept nearer to the sledge.
The shaggy Eskimo dog is of a single breed throughout the entire range of the culture. The ordinary team today consists of five or six dogs.
Sometimes it becomes difficult to feed these dogs. They must be supplied seal meat throughout the winter. Before rifles were introduced the Eskimos could not support the large team of dogs.
The draught animal alone differs from tribe to tribe. Some like the Ostiaks and Eskimos have dog-teams, while the Tungus and Lapps prefer the reindeer. Dogs travel faster and are priceless whenever speed is matter of life and death.
The dogs are well trained, and a good leader (dog) can find his way on dark nights and in snowstorms to a food depot or camping site.
Feeding dogs presents great difficulty, for they eat meat and fish, as men do, without yielding any article of food, as reindeer do, except in cases of emergency when the dogs may be scarified Central Eskimo Dog in Harness to save men’s lives.
Contrary to this, the reindeer, which requires no food of man, supplies him with some milk. A pair of reindeer will draw a sledge laden with up to 40 kgs at a rate of 4 kms an hour. The reindeer is suitable for long journeys and slow migration, while the dog is suitable for hunting trip and fast migration.
Most Eskimos traditionally have lived primarily as hunters of maritime mammals (seals, walrus, whales), and the structure and ethos of their culture have been fundamentally oriented to the sea.
This is a patrilineal society in which the oldest man commands the highest respect. The ‘old man’—the ablest of the elders in every group and who presides at ceremonials and festivals has considerable authority over its members.
He selects the fishing sites and assigns each family to its proper place; he sends hunters out in different directions; and for the seasonal migrations, when the group breaks up into small family units travelling by different routes, he selects the meeting place.
The produce of hunting and fishing are not kept by individuals but are handed over to the ‘old man’, whose wife distributes it. Tents, nets and boats are the property of the group or, more occasionally, the family, and personal property is practically restricted to clothing and individual hunting weapons.
The young men are rigorously trained for the difficult and exhausting task of reindeer and caribou hunting, for a herd once disturbed moves off with great speed and must be followed relentlessly for days if a kill is to be made.
If ambushes are impossible, some part of the herd is separated off and chased at the run over many kilometers until the exhausted animal can be approached more closely and brought down with arrows and spears.
The leading hunter of the group, like the ‘strong man’ who organizes the defence of the group or its territory, attains and keeps his position only by display of great bravery, strength and resourcefulness. Before the big hunts in spring (May-June), long rituals, worships are performed so that the hunting missions are successful.
During the summer (July-September), several bands of Eskimos join together for festivals and ceremonies. At such occasions, they have games, competitions, and trials of strength between the young men and of magical power between the magicians.
Serious disputes and fighting between Eskimos groups have been rare. Whenever there is a fight among the rival groups, captives taken in the fighting are made to work for the group.
The common elements of the Eskimos culture are the bow and arrow, salmon spear, large open boat, snow-shoes, tailored clothing, the blubber heating lamp, ridge pole tent and the caribou hunting methods, the harpoons.
In the Arctic region, the cultural elements are the dog sledge, the snow house and ice hunting methods. Like Pygmies, the Eskimos practice ‘silent trade’ with Chuckchis of Siberia.
The Eskimo religion is animistic. It imputed spirits, or souls, to animals and to important features of the landscape.
According to one estimate, the total population of the Arctic region at present exceeds 800,000 persons, a figure that had never been reached before. But this population includes the Europeans and Americans whose mode of life is different from that of the Eskimos. Traditional methods of survival in the Tundra region have produced a unique culture.
First, the Eskimos’ dependence on animals and the land has led to a respect for both, for without them there is no future for their people.
Secondly, in the highly mobile hunting culture, where wind, weather, and animal movement change constantly, decisions must be made quickly, and individual decisions are given a high regard.
Third, the Eskimos cannot be attached to one piece of land as hunters home is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
In brief, the cycle of animal life dictates the pattern of traditional Eskimo activity. In spring, they hunt seals and nesting birds. Summer brings other sea mammals, including the walrus; caribou are hunted in summer and autumn, and fishing takes place all the year round.
Although, the mineral boom has provided new weapons and comfort to Eskimos, they feel unhappy about the breakdown of their traditional relationship with nature—land, sea and resources.
War is almost unknown among the Eskimos. The strong for life is greater among the Eskimos than among any other people; it explains why success in obtaining food is a source of prestige, and failure is considered a disgrace.
It is within this arduous framework of Eskimo life that we can account for the frequency of infanticide and the killing of old persons and invalids; non-productive persons are a crushing burden to the community and to themselves.
Thus, it is not surprising that the request for death usually comes from the old or disabled person himself. The old and disabled person commits suicide, when the winters are harsh and gloomy and there is shortage of food.
In the darkness, the person who is going to kill himself slips out of the igloo and walks away bear footed in unknown direction till he gets exhausted. When he is unable to move further, he removes his clothes and exposes his body.
In the frozen cold he dies within no time. Yet, hunger may be so pressing that occasionally they Way be driven to cannibalism, which later on, in normal times, they abhor and profess never to have committed. All these events they themselves look upon as misfortune rather than offence, which the average Eskimo is ready to forgive and forget looking upon the perpetrators with pity rather than with indignation.
Theft and robbery are unknown among Eskimos, the most common offenses being witchcraft, mixing with women, and murder.
The marriages are pre-arranged which are quite successful. Marriage without love is the rule in the Eskimo society. According to an old Eskimo, “love, if it comes at all, comes some months after marriage” The society is monogamous.
The culture and identity of Eskimos depend on their ability to harvest the wildlife of the region and to conserve the ecosystem. Keeping this point in mind, the Eskimos from Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia are represented at the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC).
The ICC has developed plans to protect 6.5 million sq. kms (2.5 million sq. miles) of vulnerable Arctic environment, provide for Eskimos subsistence needs and maintain the productivity and biological diversity of the Inuit homeland, thereby forming a basis for sustainable economic development.
Known as the Inuit Regional Conservation Strategy (IRCS), these plans draw on indigenous culture, skills and values but also take into account scientific knowledge of the area.
The society of the Eskimos and of those who are living in the Arctic region is a typical example which explains how man has made the best use of the available limited resources in the harsh environment. The main sustenance of Eskimos is still being obtained from marine Arctic mammals, which they hunt with the greatest skill and with indigenous weapons fabricated largely from driftwood.
They could paddle across open water in skin-covered small boats. They habituated themselves to meat diet. They use animal oil for cooking, heating and lighting. They build their winter homes of ice-blocks and use furs for clothing and bedding.
In summer, they move away from the coast to hunt caribou and to gather wild fruits, sheltering themselves in skin-covered tents. They live and migrate in small groups or single families. Their higher needs like games, sports and music, etc., are also closely influenced by their physical surroundings.
The Eskimos are now much involved in modern world, but traditional beliefs and practices have not so thoroughly changed. The Eskimos in Greenland have established a fishing industry. Education, medical services, and local self-governments are the modes of governance. Same is the case with the Alaskan and Canadian Eskimos.
Although in some isolated areas, hunting and trapping are still carried on in Alaska and Canada, most of them are congregated in towns and settlements in search of wage labour as well as to take advantage of modern social amenities. The Eskimos in Canada after the agreement of 1989 are having greater control over their regions.
In brief, the adaptation of Eskimos to their natural environment is one of the finest examples. Their dome-shaped snow houses (Igloos), are models of the exercise of effective engineering technology, using the material at hand.
This is evidenced by the ease with which an igloo can be constructed, its durability, and the manner in which it fulfills its function of providing shelter and comfort in the savage cold of the Arctic winter.
The use of walrus bones for sledge, or for eye shields to protect against the driving blizzards or against the glare of the sun on the snow are the other instances of this adaptation.
The detachable heads of the spears used in hunting walrus or whale allow the precious wooden handles to float away unharmed once a strike has been made, to be recovered by the hunter later. Or we may cite the blown up walrus bladders that are attached to a spearhead to irritate a struck whale when it dives and, by weakening the whale with loss of blood, force it to the surface for the kill.
Even such an implement as the snow-beater has been thought of to free fur clothing of snow so that it will not deteriorate from moisture when taken into the warm igloo.
The human life in the Tundra region is a constant struggle for survival which does not give enough time for the satisfaction of the higher needs and for progress towards the refinement of civilization.
The recent studies on Eskimos show that their traditional mode of life is changing fast. They eased to practice subsistence economy and have been drawn into fur trade and have been encouraged to produce a surplus, beyond their own requirements of the skins of fur-bearing animals.
After the discovery of minerals in their territories, they have been using fire-arms and began to live in pre-fabricated houses in the settlements adjoining airfields, radar stations and mines.
Their life is changing but still the role of physical environment is strikingly significant in the Arctic region.