CHAPTER VII: Eskimos and other Inhabitants of Alaska, Siberia and Greenland

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  • C H A P T E R V I I

    Eskimos and other Inhabitants of Alaska, Siberia and Greenland

    1. Mummies fiom Alaska

    In the dry, cold climate of the lands of the Eskimos, frozen mummies have often been remarkably well preserved by natural means. M. R. Zimmerman (1983) -has investigated mummies from the Aleutian Islands and Alaska. He frequently found a severe anthra- cosis (soot) in the lungs, a very common find- ing in mummies all over the world, most often in women; this is probably because they had to look after the fire or the lamps. We found the same severe anthracosis in our investigations of the 500- year- old Green- landish mummies (see later in this Chapter).

    2. Mummies fiom Siberia

    The Scythians were not Eskimos but a nomadic people living in Southern Russia north of the Black Sea; their vast territory included Siberia. According to Ascenzi et al. (1983), and the Greek writer Herodotos (about 484- 425 B. C.), the key feature of all these cultures was the horse.

    Herodotos visited Olbia, one of the har- bours on the Black Sea, and wrote about the Scythian form of artificial embalming which lasted 40 days (40 seems to be a very common number in ancient times, for reasons we do not know):

    Fig 43 a, 6. Eskimo Qihkitsoq, Gmenlad dated ar being about 500 years old. The skin is covered with whitishfingi. (From Hart Hansen et al., 1991. Photo: The NationalMwpzrm, Copenhagen.)


  • Fig. 44 (above). Histological senion of scleral tissueJtom the pye of a 4-year-old Greenland boy. A Grocott silver- stain h o u a growth of Sporotrh&ngorum, a very rare&ngw. (x330). (Fmm Bodenhoff et al , i979. The Q e Pathology Institute, Univenity of Copenhagen.)

    Fig. 45 (opposite page). A six- months- old boy Jtom Qilakitsoc, Greenland The seemingly empty orbits contain Em- nantx o f pyes. (From Hart Hamen et al , 1931. Photo: Gentope Hospital Copenbagen.)

    When a Scythian king died they opened Iiis belly, cleaned out the inside and filled the cavity with a preparation of chopped cypress, fi-ankincense, parsley- seed and aniseed, after which they sewed up the opening, enclosed the body in wax and carried it around through all the different tribes. Each tribe took a piece of the mans body and carried the corpse to another tribe. At last the dead king was laid in a grave; then they killed one of his concubines

    by strangling and also his cup bearer, his cook, his groom, his lackey, his messenger and some of his horses. They were all placed in the grave. After one year fifty of the best of the late kings attendants were taken and stran- gled, with fifty of the most beautiful horses. They all received the same kind of treatment as the late king, and after some ceremonies the riders and their horses were arranged in a cir- cle around the tomb and so left (Herodotos

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  • description (Ascenzi et al., 1983) is con- densed).

    The embalming of the bodies has been investigated in a fay cases. The process was not unlike that of the Egyptians, except that the Scythians did not use natron.

    A 111 mummification included removal of the entrails, slitting of the limbs and trepana- tion of the skull, with removal of the brain. In some of the bodies the muscles had been re-

    moved and replaced by horsehair. Heredotos reports that it was quite common among cer- tain tribes to kill their old people and eat part of the flesh.

    The custom of burying a horse with its rider is a very ancient, and has persisted into recent times, for example among the Turks in the first millennium A.D. and up to the 19th century in the East Altai mountains of south- ern Siberia.


  • Fig. 46 Histohgical section of eye from the 4- year- okd Greenland bq A. Remnants of choroid and lens (aster- isk) are seen between the two layers ofsckra (~2.5). B. Lens fibres (asterisk) (~140). C. Melanin granules fiom the retina (~560). There are no rmains of cornea or optic nerve and no s i p of injuy or eye disease. (Ry Andersen i+ Prause, 1331. The Eye Pathology Institute, University of Copenhagen.)

    As referred to in the introduction, many deep- frozen mammoths have been found in northern Siberia mummified by natural means; but as far as I know no examinations of the eyes have ever been described in these cases.

    3. Greenland

    In 1972, eight mummies were found in two north- west- facing caves on a mountain in an abandoned settlement named Qilakitsoq in north- west Greenland (Hart Hansen et al.,


  • Eg 47 a, b. X- ray of base of skulljom a woman of about 5ofiom Qihkhoq. WUtspread destruction of the base of the skull (kft, marked by arrows sugests a malignant tumouc probably a carcinoma of thepharynw with invmion of the l@ orbit. On the right, skull of a contemporary inhabitant of Greenhndjb comparison. (From Hart Hansen et al., 1991. Photo: Gentoje Hospital, Copenhagen.)

    1991). C- 14 examination dated the furs and human tissues at about 1475 A.D. * 50 years, i.e. they are about five hundred years old. HL- A and - B series* of transplantation genes revealed that they belonged to two families, all of genuine Eskimo - gene origin without Caucasian genes. They were Skraelings, the Northern term for Eskimos.

    Six of them were women; their skin and the 78 furs were covered with whitish fungi (Fig. 4 3 , including Sparomifingorum, a very rare fungus, never previously found in the Arctic (Bodenhoff et al., 1979) (Fig. 44).

    Comparison between the C- 14 dates of the skin from one of the two boys and the furs showed that the Greenlanders food must have been rich in marine intake (Tauber, 1990).

    Two of the mummies were small children

    (Fig. 45). The orbits appeared to be empty, but rehydration was successfid and we found some eye and other tissues, although in rather poor condition (Fig. 46). (See Chapter I, pages 16- 17).

    Among the many investigations, X-ray ex- amination of the mummies revealed that one of the six women had extensive destruction of the base of the skull, probably due to a nasal pharyngeal carcinoma causing blindness in one eye (Fig. 47). This is a tumour of unknown origin which is about 25- times more common in Greenland than in southern Denmark today. This form of tumour is also quite widespread in certain regions of China and North Africa, although it is rare in Europe. Probably both hereditary and environmental conditions play a part in the


  • frequency of cancer and a number of other diseases.

    The oldest boy, about four years old, ap- pears to have suffered from Downs syndrome, a congenital non- hereditary condition involv- ing mental deficiency and various malforma- tions, for example he had a typically diseased left hip joint. The little boy aged about six months may have been exposed or strangled, but in his case as well as in the other seven cases the cause of death could not be estab- lished with certainty.

    It was impossible to tell whether these eight Greenlanders had died at the same time. The C- 14 datings are not sufficiently accurate to decide this, and the placement of some of the

    bodies and the furs suggests that they were not buried precisely at the same time. The great number of furs (78) indicates that a long jour- ney to the country of the dead was expected.

    No jewels, weapons or other items were found, and we have no possibility of proving or disproving whether they met Scandina- vians. The Scandinavians, especially Nonve- gians and Danes, left Greenland after about 400 years of occupation for unknown reasons.

    These eight freeze-dried mummies are the oldest known finds of well-preserved humans and their clothing in the entire Arctic cultural area. The investigations at the National Museum and elsewhere are as yet far from completed.