Thursday, January 22, 2009

Blond Inuit?

One of the mysteries of anthropology is the reported presence of ‘blond’ Inuit in the western Canadian Arctic, specifically on and around Victoria Island. They were first noticed by the explorer Sir John Franklin and by Alaskan whalers.

The travellers who have been most surprised by the appearance of the Victoria Island Eskimos are those who are most used to Eskimos of the regular or “pure” type. Such a party were Klinkenberg’s white and (Alaskan) Eskimo crew of the American whaling ship Olga … and it was through her captain and crew that I first half-realized that the people of western Victoria Island were conspicuously different from other Eskimos. … What half-convinced me that he [the captain] was right was the emphatic corroboration of the Alaska Eskimo members of Klinkenberg’s crew, who said that the Victoria Islanders were in appearance like a group of half-castes, although they were wholly Eskimo in language and customs. (Stefansson, 1908, pp. 375-376)

These impressions were confirmed by the anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson for Victoria Island and by the anthropologist Knud Rasmussen for adjacent islands:

In reality these blond types are not peculiar to Victoria Island. In King William Island and on Back River, as well as on Kent Peninsula, I found types which had exactly the same outward characteristics, the same light complexion, the same reddish or brownish hair, the gray and even nearly blue eyes, and remarkably abundant beards—something which is elsewhere uncommon among Eskimos.
(Stefansson, 1908, p. 379)

Stefansson advanced four possible explanations: a) recent European intermixture with whalers or fur traders; b) ancient European intermixture with the Greenland Norse; c) ancient migration of a fair-haired Eurasian people from across the Bering Strait; and d) independent mutation. He was skeptical about the first two explanations:

… no whaler or other person familiar with it has ever suggested that any whaler came in contact with the Victoria Islanders before Captain Klinkenberg in 1905.

The only tenable hypothesis in connection with whaling is that the European blood may have come from the east side of the continent through the Americans, Scotch, and others who have engaged in Hudson Bay and Baffin Bay whaling for centuries. Here we are dealing with no impossibility any more than we were in the case of the earlier and more numerous Greenland Norsemen. But if the mixing of races is so recent, it would appear that it should be most conspicuous farther east where the whalers had their headquarters, fading away as one goes westward. The opposite is the case.

(Stefansson, 1908, pp. 377-378)

Stefansson opted for the last explanation as the most probable: “It is possible that for some so-called accidental reason blond individuals may have been born from time to time in the past from parents of pure Eskimo blood, and that these may have perpetuated themselves” (Stefansson, 1908, p. 381).

Some new light has been shed by a team of researchers headed by Palsson (2008). They collected genetic data from 299 Inuit on Victoria Island and at adjacent locations, as well as from other Inuit or Inuit-related groups (Greenland Inuit, Chukchi, Siberian Yupiit, and Alaskan Aleut). No evidence of European admixture is apparent in the Victoria Island Inuit with respect to either maternally or paternally inherited lineages. But there is evidence of maternal lineages from a pre-Inuit source, possibly the Dorset people who inhabited the Canadian Arctic a thousand years ago.

What conclusion should we draw? Palsson (2008) concluded that the existence of blondism among the Victoria Island Inuit had been blown out of all proportion. Alternately, it may be that new alleles for hair and eye color arose independently through mutation, with some kind of selection pressure favoring these color traits over the original black hair and brown eyes. Finally, it may be that a pre-Inuit population of Eurasian origin, perhaps the Dorset or even the earlier Paleoeskimos, had a significant incidence of fair hair and fair eyes. Such traits might then have persisted through admixture in this Inuit group. The last possibility might not be so far-fetched, since fair hair has been reported among the Yukaghir of eastern Siberia (von Hellwald, 1882).


Palsson, G. (2008). Genomic anthropology. Coming in from the cold? Current Anthropology, 49, 545-568.

Stefansson, V. (1927). My Life with the Eskimos. New York: The MacMillan Co.

von Hellwald, F. (1882). Völkerkunde, Nurnberg.


Anonymous said...

Paleoeskimos are unlikely to have been blond IMO, their hunting of the relatively easy to find musk ox on Victoria Island would be unlikely to result in high mortality amoung hunters
Late Dorset Caribou Hunters: Zooarchaeology of the Bell Site, Victoria Island
[...] suggest that Late Dorset people may not have been actively hunting caribou or that caribou population numbers were low during the Late Dorset period across much of the eastern Arctic. In contrast to other sites, faunal remains from the Bell site indicate that Late Dorset people living there were primarily dependent on caribou and Arctic char, and relied only minimally on seal.

Caribou cover more ground, hunting them would require far greater distances to be covered not forgetting the longer return trip carrying the carcass across an uneven surface (a very different thing to backpacking the same weight along a trail)

phil said...

Interesting, the Eskimo population of Greenland when it was recolonized was reported to have had a number of individuals with green/blue eyes, this being assumed to have been the result of assimilating the Viking colonists. I'll try to recall the document where I read that.

It is also interesting that there are a number of (pre-Columbian) mummies from the Nazca area of Peru that have brown to reddish to blondish hair. I don't know if that is the result of some post-mortem environmental action, dyes, or if it was the natural hair color. The only thing I've found online offering a scientific opinion on the nature of this unusual coloration was from one of Thor Heyerdahl's books from the 50's. The Spanish in Pizarro's day also apparently reported blondism among some of the Peruvian Indians they conquered.

Anonymous said...


I was thinking that one of the pre-Inuit populations (there were at least two, the Dorset and the Paleoeskimos) may have brought some incidence of fair hair and fair eyes from Eurasia, perhaps from a population ancestral to the Yukaghir.

On the other hand, we could be looking at in situ selection, perhaps at a much earlier time period. Ideally, we should try to identify which alleles are responsible for the fair hair and fair eyes.


The Greenland Inuit have legends about the Norse settlers. One legend recounts that the Inuit took in some Norse women after their settlement had been plundered by English pirates.

There have been many accounts of mummies with blond/red hair from Peru, Egypt, and Sinkiang (China). This seems to be due to a natural process of pigment degradation. Eumelanin (black-brown color) tends to break down more readily than does pheomelanin (blond-red color). So, over time, hair of any shade will become red or blond. We see the same process with 'summer blonds.' The sunlight breaks down the eumelanin in the hair while leaving the pheomelanin intact.

Anonymous said...

Well, I want to warn you that Paul Emile Victor, the famous french polar ethnolog, took his job very seriously. To understand the inuit culture, he thought mandatory to take an inuit wife. I have no doubt that "he had" to take not one, but several wives to better undertand the traditional customs of these tribes.

On the same kind of scientific investigations, at the beginning of the last century, a group of french astronomers travelling to south america to study a solar eclips, had basically impregnated so many local women that they were chased by the villagers...Science tolerates no mistresses.


Anonymous said...

"There have been many accounts of mummies with blond/red hair from Peru, Egypt, and Sinkiang (China). This seems to be due to a natural process of pigment degradation"

The Y-DNA Haplogroup map I've seen show Europoid haplogroup (R1a) among the people from the north-eastern Siberia. Isn't that possible that a few whites settled in this part of Canada and mixed for centuries among eskimo population ?

R1a is obviously the Haplogroup of the original Indo-europeans since its presence extend from all the place the original Indo-europeans dwellt (Xinjiang, Altai, India, Persia, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Europe, you name it...).
In all the place where Indo-european settled in Asia and near/middle-east, we can found Europoid phenotypes.
What is particularly significant is that some indo-european populations of the Hindu Kush, the most isolated (Kalash of North Pakistan and Nuristani of Afghanistan) have kept the cultural traits of the old Indo-european migration in Asia. Their religion is obviously a surviving of the oiriginal Indo-european religion of yore that was the source of the antique European paganism, the pre-Zoroadtrian Persian religion and the ancient Vedic religion of India that gave birth to Hinduism (well, the Nuristani have been islamized around 1895 but there is still surviving practice of it).
These population of mountainous regions have the populations that have retain the most an European phenotype as the mixing was less important. Blondism, pale skin and blue eyes are not rare.

Personnally, I doubt R1a's original characteristics included blondism, very pale-skinned and blue-eyes, but they certainly mixed with females of the I1 haplogroup of northern Europe (likely to be the "Nordic" type and whose equivalent in mtDNA would be the U (and K ?) haplogroup, hence the characteristics of pale skin, blondism and blue eyes everywhere U is present in a certain quantity (Europe, Indo-European Asia and North Africa).
They would have mixed in Ukraine (supporting the "Kurgans" theory).

R1 Y-DNA haplogroup and H mtDNA haplogroup are probably the same (one for the patrilinear haplogroup and the other for the matrilineal haplogroup).
And I Y-DNA haplogroup and U (and K) mtDNA hapogroup are probably the same as well.
As for the U hplogroup presence in Africa, remember that old (high diversity) I1 are found among the Basque population (There are a few blue-eyed blond Basques as well) of the Iberic peninsula and that U6 haplogroup with highest diversity is found in Spain (implying probably the origin of the U6 haplogroup found in sizable quantity in north Africa).

As for the Xinjiang mummies, they've been genetically tested and Europoid haplogroups have been found. It seems clear they were the proto-Tocharians, an Indo-european people living in this part of modern China.

Same thing for the Egyptian mummies. European phenotypes comes from the fact that there were Europoid peoples living there before the Berbers came about 10,000 yrs ago.

(In these 12,000 yrs old bones found in Morocco, none were typical of the Berbers - HaplogroupslE1b1b1 or J1 but the J1 mostly came during the middle-ages when a Berber ruler invited Arabic tribes to settle there. )
Some probably reached ancient Egypt and mixed there (search for images of Rahotep and Nofret, for instance).

So far, everywhere we found blondism case (except for Australia and Melanesia) we've founf Europoid haplogroups in the population.
Even these cases of blond and blue-eyed Mongols can be explained by Eurpoid genes (A lot of R1a and U in the Altai, near mongolia where mummies of Indo-european Scythians have been found that had pale skin and blond hair (search for Pazyryk). R1s and U have also been found in the Mongol population.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and red-headed Amerindians from the Andes are not impossible, read about the Chachapoyas (A tribe ennemies of the Incas whose people was described as often white-skinned and red-headed).

A legend ? Not sure :)

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