Local prehistory

Arctic Canada was uninhabited until the end of the last Ice Age. A great ice sheet had covered Canada’s North and its weight depressed the land beneath. When the ice melted much of the land was flooded by rising water levels. The land itself gradually rose when the ice was gone and is still rising, so water levels in the past were higher than today. Our oldest archaeological sites may have been on old shorelines which are now high above water level.

The new land which emerged from under the ice sheet became home to great numbers of caribou and other wildlife. Paleo-Eskimos (Paleo meaning “old”) visited the Barrens to hunt the vast herds 8000 to 4000 years ago. The next occupants of the Barrens were the Paleo-Eskimos, from 3800 to 2800 years ago. They were nomadic hunters of caribou, musk-ox, small game, and fish, and are recognized by the tiny finely-made stone tips of their weapons and tools. Apparently they had no domesticated dogs to pull their sleds, and spent the winters in skin tents insulated with sod or snow.

After the time of the Paleo-Eskimos, Archaic Indians hunted on the Barrens and probably wintered in northern forests. By 1000 years ago, immigrants from Alaska were starting to populate the Canadian Arctic. They are called Thule Eskimos and are the ancestors of modern Inuit. They were remarkably successful hunters of whales, caribou, and seal. In winter they lived in well-insulated partly-underground homes with a roof of wood or whalebones and sod. They also knew how to build snowhouses, and heated their homes with the steady warmth of the blubber lamp made of soapstone. In summer they lived in skin tents weighted down by unusually large stones. They were mainly a coastal people but came to the Baker Lake area to hunt the caribou herds and probably to the upper Thelon River for wood.

By the 17th and 18th centuries some Thule people of what is now the Kivalliq began to stay inland all year relying on caribou as their primary source of food. They are known in historic writings as Caribou Eskimos. The Caribou Eskimos were more nomadic than their coastal Thule ancestors had been; they lived in snowhouses in winter and skin tents in summer. Their main hunt was in the fall when they speared swimming caribou from their kayaks as the herds crossed narrow bodies of water. The Caribou Eskimos were excellent trappers and made the long journey to trade their fox skins for firearms and tea at Fort Prince of Whales (Churchill).

Local prehistory ends in the 1920s and 1930s when trading posts, the R.C.M.P., and the missions were established at Baker Lake. Most of its Inuit inhabitants had settled in town by the mid-1960s from the Baker Lake, Kazan, Thelon, and Back River areas.