The most northern rock art site on the continent
To the watchful eye, the exposed rocks of Nunavik tell the tale of the Nordic people who came across the higher Arctic over the past centuries and millennia. Near Kangiqsujuaq, archeological vestiges show not only Inuit cultural way of life, but also Dorset people carvings on the Qajartalik. The area is so rich that it could be soon recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Cultural Landscape.
As we ride on a snowmobile going southeast of Kangiqsujuaq, Lucassie Nappaaluk surveys the horizon. The snow still covers most of the landscape, but rocks start peaking out as the April sun melts it away. We are on our way to an archeological journey on the land, going to the Qajartalik site.
Once we reach the Hudson Strait, Lucassie points to a rock ahead, showing a face with definite lips and nose. He then tells a story about a Hudson Bay Company ship that was wrecked in this area near Aivirtuq, back in the 1890s. “Back in the day, Inuit people welcomed these people. After time, problems arrived because of alcohol and a girl and four people died,” he recalls, saying the history inspired the book and the movie, The White Dawn.
Aivirtuq is the name of the Inuit settlement located on the coast, before the onset of the first fur trading post was installed where Kangiqsujuaq is now located. This area is full of such stories, because food has always been plentiful, attracting people in the area, particularly for the bowhead whale and walrus hunt.
“We are lucky here because there is lots of food,” notes Lucassie Nappaaluk, 69 years old, who has never suffered from hunger. Even when the Canadian government decided to kill most of the dogs, in the 1960s, people around Kangiqsujuaq were able to gather and hunt enough food without travelling very long distances, he says.
In 1773, a Moravian missionary came to the area and estimated a population of 300 people, the largest in Ungava Bay. This number is particularly high since Inuit traditionally lived in small groups of 10 to 15 people.
The Nordic people’s history dates back much longer because the Dorset people also lived on the Nunavik coast between 2,200 and 1,000 years ago. On Qikertaaluk Island, about 40 km from Kangiqsujuaq, they even made more than 180 carvings of faces on the soapstone. The site is known as Qajartalik, which means “where there is a qajaq (kayak),” because a small bay is a good spot to harbour a qajaq, notes Lucassie.
On this early spring day, large amounts of snow still cover the bay… and the carvings. I had been advised it could happen, but I wanted to try my luck, because the Canadian government added the site on its shortlist to become recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2018. Lucassie does not know what the carvings mean, but he assumes they must have been important for shamans.
To get to know more about this site, I talked to Robert Fréchette, the Avataq Cultural Institute General Manager, Louis Gagnon, the Museology Department Director and Elsa Cencig, an archeologist.
When you walk around the Qajartalik site during summer, you can visit the most northern rock art site on the continent, where at least 180 petroglyphs can be found, representing stylized faces, all different, from two to 70 cm high, says Louis Gagnon.
Based on cultural comparisons, these carvings have been made by Dorset people, who disappeared about 800 years ago, notes Elsa Cencig. “The carvings are about 1,000 years old, around the end of the Dorset reign. We don’t know if they ever cohabited with Inuit people or if they disappeared because of other issues, like climate change,” she says.
One thing is sure, the Qajartalik site is unique because it is the only place in the world where Dorset carvings can be found in such concentration. Only two other sites harbour Dorset petroglyphs, but nowhere near as many as Qajartalik, adds Elsa Cencig.
“These carvings are an example of the Dorset people’s impressive creative genius,” explains Robert Fréchette. “This is an outstanding cultural pole where the Dorset ‘engravers’ expressed themselves on a large surface by carving faces in the rock mass to communicate their vision of the world — a vision likely connected to the Dorset people’s spiritual universe and to Paleoeskimo shaman iconographic representations.”
According to Robert Fréchette, Qajartalik should not only be recognized as a World Heritage Site, but the recognition should encompass the whole area. “This area has been occupied continuously for 4,000 years and we think it should be recognized as a cultural landscape,” he says, since UNESCO defines a cultural landscape as “combined works of nature and humankind, they express a long and intimate relationship between peoples and their natural environment”.
This long-time presence on the land can be witnessed not only with the petroglyph, but also with the vestiges of the Inuit, who have used the territory extensively over the last eight centuries. “The last known Inuit shaman was also buried on Qikertaaluk Island,” adds Fréchette, saying the island was also used as a quarry, because rocks have been removed in some zones, probably to make lamps or kettles.
Even if I could not see the petroglyphs on this visit because of the snow cover, Lucassie Nappaaluk had many other archeological vestiges to show me. We hop on the snowmobile to reach the next island, a place of utmost importance to Inuit because they used to bury their loved ones on islands, he explains, after serving me a cup of tea on the shore.
We start walking on the rocks and he points out a set of stones placed in a circle. “This is where the family stayed when their loved one died,” he says. The family would cry over their death and stay along the corpse, buried under many rocks, for days before moving on.
Huge inukshuk also stand on the island, dating from another era, because people used to build them differently, notes Lucassie. “It means it’s a good place for hunting and fishing.”
Walking around the island, he shows other piles of rocks that were used to store food, to keep animals away. On our way, he tells me he has participated in more than 10 international documentaries, talking about Inuit traditions, hunting and fishing practices. Sharing with me his knowledge about the land and the history of his people, I feel deeply privileged to live this experience, as if I am in a live documentary, with one of the most respected elders of the community.
At another place, Lucassie shows me a fox fur storage, made of rocks, used during the fur trade era, back in the late 1800s. “It could fit 1,000 foxes,” he says.
According to Robert Fréchette, UNESCO sites have brought economic development everywhere in the world, and there is no reason why Kangiqsujuaq should be different. To protect the site, experts are developing a management plan to avoid damages.
In this treeless territory, the Aivirtuq rocks have a long story to tell. They could become the major tourist attraction in the area, believes Brian Urquhart, Economic Development & Tourism Coordinator of Nunaturlik Landholding Corporation. With its splendid mountains, the Pingualuit National Park, activities like under the ice mussel harvesting and this archeological hotspot, Kangiqsujuaq has everything to charm tourists.