When I came across this fascinating National Film Board video from 1949 on how to build an igloo, it reminded me of a conversation I had with a colleague about whether the design of the Inuit snow house was originally developed in part as protection against marauding polar bears?
Such a dome of tightly-fitted snow blocks, when properly consolidated with a thin layer of ice inside, must have been virtually impenetrable to even the hungriest bears – and defendable at the narrow entrance tunnel. The image below is from Frobisher Bay, Baffin Island around 1865, which lies within the boundaries of the Davis Strait subpopulation of polar bears.
I’ve often wondered how Arctic people, especially those in who lived in coastal areas where polar bears were abundant before the arrival of Europeans, protected themselves from attacks by bears as they slept and lived through the long, dark winters.
Inuit then ate the same food as the bears (and many still do) but even where this is no longer the case, problems that modern communities have had with bears in recent years suggests that food attractants have been always been an issue for Arctic residents. See here, here, here, and here.
Even small stores of seal meat and whale blubber kept inside an igloo for immediate consumption must have attracted the predators. Or did it? Polar bears have a very keen sense of smell but did the design of the igloo and its tunnel entrance also minimize the escape of odors?
Any type of housing (whether temporary or permanent) must have been able to provide a last layer of protection against bears where ever humans lived throughout the Arctic in prehistoric times or they would not have survived. Of course, hunters who had to go out on the sea ice over the winter to kill seals for food would also be at risk of polar bear attack but that’s a different issue.
Igloos were traditionally used in winter by Inuit in the Central Canadian Arctic and western Greenland but in other coastal regions, semi-subterranean houses (variously constructed with drift wood, rock, and/or whalebone) were the go-to choice, see here, here, and here.
Both forms of housing likely served the same dual functions: protection from cold and hungry bears.
Dogs obviously could have been a deterrent in some situations but were unlikely to have been a fail-safe option: dogs are no match for a determined polar bear. Here is a short film (14 minutes) about traditional Inuit dogs.
I’ve never come across any mention in the scientific or historical literature of the efficacy of the igloo as a bear-proof structure but it’s an interesting thought to share on this last day of the year.
Here is what Wikipedia says about the igloo:
- The smallest are constructed as temporary shelters, usually only used for one or two nights so they are easier to build. On rare occasions these are built and used during hunting trips, often on open sea ice.
- Intermediate-sized igloos were for semi-permanent, family dwelling. This was usually a single room dwelling that housed one or two families. Often there were several of these in a small area, which formed an Inuit village.
- The largest igloos were normally built in groups of two. One of the buildings was a temporary structure built for special occasions, the other built nearby for living. These might have had up to five rooms and housed up to 20 people. A large igloo might have been constructed from several smaller igloos attached by their tunnels, giving common access to the outside. These were used to hold community feasts and traditional dances.