The term ‘Arctic’, before it was applied to a geographical region and its inhabitants, first had an astronomical meaning for the ancient Greeks. It signified the apparent trajectory of the Great Bear (‘bear’ is arctos in Greek) around the celestial North Pole. This celestial landmark was then projected onto the terrestrial sphere where it was used to draw what we know as the Arctic Circle (66 degrees N.Latitude).
Arctic peoples have fed the Western imagination for thousands of years, through
myths, legends and travellers’ tales, before becoming an object of anthropological study
at the end of the nineteenth century. It was the ardent quest for a northern short cut to the
Indies and China that drew Western sailors to explore the Arctic seas, in the Northwest as
well as in the Northeast. The competition between European states which this exploration
provoked explains the current political division of the territory occupied by Inuits
(Eskimos), which is cross-cut by four state boundaries (Russia, United States, Canada
and Denmark). More complex historical reasons produced a similar division of the
territory of the Saami (Lapps) between four states (Norway, Sweden, Finland and
Russia). Next to these two big regions lies the immense Siberian Arctic, where the
following groups of people live, within the present Russian Federation: Nenets
(Samoyeds), Mansis (Voguls), Khanti (Ostyaks), Evenks (Tungus), Nganasans, Dolgans,
Yakuts, Evens (Lamuts), Yugakirs, Chukchi and Koryaks.
Firsthand accounts based on direct observation of Arctic peoples were published in Europe, thanks to the printing-press, at the beginning of the sixteenth century by explorers, travellers and cartographers. The publication of Heberstein’s Rerum Muscoviticarum commentarü in 1549 presented more detailed information about the people living at the eastern and northern borders of Moscovia: Tartars and Samoyeds. It is certain that it influenced the creation of the ‘Moscow Company’ in Great Britain (1555), the aim of which was the discovery and exploration of a northeastern or northwestern passage to Cathay. Yet confusion still reigned for a long time about the configuration of the Arctic lands and their inhabitants. It was not until the invention of the portable chronometer in the eighteenth century and the ability to evaluate longitude precisely at sea, that the Arctic coasts could be mapped out scientifically. In 1821–23, a British Admiralty expedition searching for a northwest passage spent two winters in close contact with the Fox Bay Inuit, later known as Igloolik. Captains Parry and Lyon, who were responsible for the expedition, later wrote highly succesful accounts of the voyages.
Arctic peoples in contemporary Anthropology
If we examine the impact of Arctic ethnography on anthropology as a whole, several concepts emerge that now seem very far removed from the anthropological mainstream. Examples are the supposed ‘sexual communism’ and ‘economic communism’ of the Inuit and Chukchi (Mauss and Lowie). At the beginning of the twentieth century, and especially after World War II, the *‘primitive communism’ of Arctic peoples seemed like a utopian model of our origins, and for some it was seen as an alternative to Western capitalism and its excesses. It was also believed that the Arctic peoples were the last survivors of the Magdalenians. Another concept associated with them is shamanism, which has enjoyed a chequered career. The ‘Arctic hysteria’ often associated with it became fashionable within the *culture and personality movement. As far as the *technology of Arctic peoples is concerned, its importance has always been overestimated compared to social organization and religion. Boas even asserted that the Inuit have no origin myths because they were too busy fighting for survival.
Even Lévi-Strauss considered them to be great technologists but poor sociologists. The concept that has been most resistant to the passage of time has been that of †‘Eskimo type’ of kinship terminology. L.Morgan stressed the originality of Inuit kinship terminology in his Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1871), using data collected in dubious conditions. Sixty years later, using D.Jenness’s data, †L.Spier defined the ‘Eskimo type’ terminology as one of the eight main types in his classification of existing systems (The Distribution of Kinship Systems in North America, 1925). †G.P. Murdock also adopted this classification, adding an ‘Eskimo’ type of social organization (Social Structure, 1949). His work relaunched interest in Inuit kinship (from 1950 to 1970) and also in descent systems which, in the case of the Inuit, were described as †bilateral or *cognatic. The attempt to apply this classification to the Inuit was a resounding failure because they could not be said to have a single, homogeneous system, even if one acknowedged the existence among the Inuit of the eastern Arctic of certain features noted by Morgan, Spier and Murdock. Certain groups are even organized patrilineally with patriclans. Research is still being conducted, however, on kinship extensions and alliances.
In the European Arctic, among Saami reindeer herders, R.Pehrson contributed to the development of theoretical reflection on the ‘bilateralism’ of kinship structures. The subsequent trend in *componential analysis of kinship terminologies dealt a severe blow to studies of kinship. The 1990s have witnessed a revival of Russian anthropology of Arctic peoples, including the defence of indigenous peoples (Vakhtin 1992). There is also a new interest among Western researchers in comparisons with Siberia. Finally, we are witnessing a renewed appreciation of the importance of ethnography involving the holistic approach inspired by symbolic anthropology and the work of Mauss, especially his theory of the gift and of *exchange (Irimoto and Yamada 1994).