Unique location has brought people together for millennia
The fiord to the right, known as North Arm, has been a gathering spot for different cultures for at least 4,000 years. Evidence of several cultures can often be found on top of the ground. — Submitted photo
If you’re lucky enough to set foot in North Arm of Torngat Mountains National Park, the isolation of the place may suggest you’re the first person to ever stand there, but don’t distress if you instead feel as though you’re anything but alone. People have been drawn to North Arm for at least 4,000 years and it bears the cultural footprints of those who have passed there before.
Exactly what secrets it holds is the focus of a Parks Canada project starting this summer.
Marianne Stopp is a historian with Parks Canada whose background is in archeology. She’s been studying archeology in this province for more than 30 years.
North Arm in the Torngats is special in that it has brought together so many different peoples over such a long period and has left evidence of their lives as well, she says.
“It’s one of the few places we know of that is a concentration of cultures,” says Stopp.
Exactly how far back the presence of people in the area goes is one of the things Stopp and her crew hope to discover. They already know there’s evidence of the Paleo-Eskimo people in the area, who arrived from the Arctic between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago.
North Arm is actually the first place there is evidence of these pre-Dorset people in Labrador.
It’s possible North Arm was also used before that by the Maritime-Archaic, a group known already to have been in Saglek Bay and the earliest people to arrive in northern Labrador, says Stopp.
Following the Paleo-Eskimo, there’s a bit of a hiatus before the ancestors of the Inuit people arrived. Known as the Thule, the group has its earliest roots in Alaska and is renowned for having crossed the Canadian Arctic in essentially a single generation.
The Thule used North Arm, as did their descendants, the modern-day Inuit, who frequented the area right up until it was made a national park.
If Stopp and her crew find evidence of the Maritime-Archaic, the area will have likely been a gathering spot for about 5,000 years.
It’s a place that the manager of visitor experience with the park, Gary Baikie, can describe only as “overpowering.”
“It’s a gathering spot — a spot prehistorically and right up to today it’s still a gathering spot,” he says. “All these cultures have gathered there. It seems to be quite a spiritual spot for people.”
The term Torngat comes from an Inuit word meaning place of spirits.
Past work by archeologists gave an idea of what North Arm holds. This summer they’re hoping to get a clearer glimpse into the past. The summer work will have a lot do with mapping. The site isn’t what most people typically imagine when they think of an archeological site. There aren’t any digs going on. This isn’t a single settlement that people have used over and over. The past lives of people are spread out over North Arm. Moreover, the cultural landscape is sitting right on top of the geographical landscape.
“Vegetation growth takes so long in that area of the park or that area of Labrador that you can find artifacts right on top of the ground, or frost upheaval will bring artifacts right up on top of the ground,” says Baikie.
Even so, the evidence of summer use isn’t typically something that lasts through the ages, Stopp says.
“That sort of presence disappears quickly over time. And it’s unusual to have a tent ring survive for 4,000 years just sitting there on the ground.”
A tent ring is a circle of stones that were used to anchor animal-hide tents to the ground.
Baikie describes the area as a fiord, about a quarter of a mile wide with mountains on each side towering up 3,000 feet.
The reason it’s been used so much has a lot do with what it has to offer.
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