“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth” – Marcus Aurelius
Mankind has spent an inordinate amount of time pondering the question of why the dude that lives over the next hill doesn’t look like him, and such questions regarding the origins of racial diversity have preoccupied the human race pretty much since we started needing to answer the annoyingly persistent inquiries of our little Homo sapiens toddlers without sounding like complete morons. The quick and dirty explanation is that it is all about in-groups and out-groups, or more accurately, the non-intersecting set of people we will ostensibly care about, and the set people that its okay to take advantage of (because they are not one of “us”). Wolves form packs. Monkeys form troops. Humans identify races. In our modern, enlightened world, there is a general consensus that race is a social construct based on phenotypical characteristics (stuff you can see), and although geneticists will admit that certain genetic markers have varying frequencies among human populations, there aren’t a lot of people that don’t work for media mogul Rupert Murdoch or have some sort of eugenic axe to grind, that believe that there is a useful biological definition of race. We sometimes find race a useful concept, say if you were to want to colonize the world, amass fabulous wealth at the expense of others, find an excuse for killing a whole lot of people en masse, or take slaves, and this historically explains the remarkable persistence of traditional European perspectives on racial categories (since they wrote incessantly about how awesome it was to be European and were the first to figure out how to use firearms effectively). Unsurprisingly, just like countless other cultures over the centuries, Inuit Greenlanders have had a need to explain to their young children why that person in the supermarket is so pasty white, and said pasty while fellow might be surprised to learn that there exist three racial categories (1) The Inuit – the original people that first inhabited the Earth, (2) the Adlet, also called Erqigdlit – people with dog’s legs and a human body, and (3) Qavdlundt – Caucasians, as well as the fact that the Adlet and Qavdlundt are subspecies derived from the Inuit. The obvious appeal of this classificatory system, for me, is that it integrates monsters.
The Inuit are a cultural group of indigenous peoples in the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, and the United States, and these days includes the Yupik and Inupiat peoples (although the Yupik would not necessarily accept the Inuit label. Basically these are all the peoples that have historically been referred to as “Eskimos”, although the term is usually considered pejorative by the people themselves), and since nobody has come up with another generic collective shorthand for aboriginal Arctic peoples of North America, Inuit seems to be the closest thing. The ancestors of the Inuit were part of the prehistoric “Thule Culture” that emerged around the Bering Strait roughly 200 B.C., spreading out eastward across the Arctic regions of North America, and by 1300 A.D. were well settled as far east as Greenland, staying largely above the Arctic Tree Line (that would be the edge of where trees can actually live). Thule cultures were migrating from Siberia seeking more hospitable climes, and found themselves well adapted to the North American arctic. This tells you what an unpleasant place Siberia is to live. There’s a reason they put the gulags there. Some limited contact with Europeans was probably in occasional trading with the few Viking settlers who made it to Greenland. The Little Ice Age (about 1350-1850 A.D.) made whaling and hunting in the high arctic a little more difficult, pushing the Inuit south to the absolute margins of the Arctic tree line, where they began bumping into other indigenous non-Inuits with greater frequency, and eventually started encountering more Europeans in southern Labrador. Given that the Inuit could live where no other human dared, meant that Inuit society maintained relative isolation well into the 19th Century A.D. The problem with meeting strange new folks is that if they are different enough in culture and looks, you have to somehow fit them into your cosmology, like the twists and turns the Catholic Church would need to make to maintain theological consistency and explain extraterrestrials should they exist. Well, that and the observation that the taxonomic classification of the diversity of humans results from conjugal relations between a badly treated Inuit bride and a dog encoded in an extremely old Inuit myth.
If you were one of those Europeans who had early contact with the Inuit, you would have noted that no matter where you encountered them, and among diverse clans, you would have been described with precisely the same appellation, that of qavdlundt (white men) or, if you were especially nasty, qavdlunatsait (white men of warlike disposition). “Not without significance is the occurrence in Baffinland of a yet older and strangely allied myth, side by side with the Sedna tales. The most constant of the stories gleaned by travelers and students has been that of the “Woman Who Married a Dog.” Because of its distribution it must be considered as very old, if not, in fact, the most ancient of them all. Yet the fact that from the first the European has been greeted everywhere by the Inuit by the name of one of its actors, ‘Qavdlundt,’ has occasioned considerable surprise” (Wardle, 1900, p576). Danish (and part Inuit) anthropologist, Arctic explorer, and father of “Eskimology” Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen (1879-1933 A.D.) spent much of his life among the Inuit of Greenland, recording oral traditions, and captured the specific folktale from whence the classification of originated.
There was once upon a time a girl who refused every husband that offered; at last her father grew angry with her and threatened that she should marry his dog. Now it is said that the dung of a dog had been changed into a man, and was inside the house, when the father threatened his daughter to give her to his dog. And it happened that the dung in human form burst out—”Let me get out, I am thawing!” You see, it could only live as long as it remained frozen. And so it went out and gossiped to the dog. The dog, who by then felt inclined for love, broke inside, tore the girl’s clothes, and clung fast to her, as is the habit of dogs; and then it dragged her outside the house after it. The girl, who was afraid of the dog, crawled up on a large whale bone and there she fell asleep; but the dog gnawed the bone through, so that the girl fell down, and then he played with her again. The father, who was now sorry for his daughter, rowed her out to a little island; and it is that island over there, near Kangerdlugssuaq. But the dog he fastened to a large seal-skin, which he filled with large stones. Then the dog began to work magic spells, and swam with only his nose above water to the island, dragging all the stones after him. And over on the island he lived with the girl. The father, who was sorry for her, brought her food. At last the girl became pregnant, and gave birth to ten children: two dogs, two erqigdlit (dogs with men’s heads), two Eskimos, two qavdlunat (white men), and two qavdlunatsait (white men of warlike disposition). The white men she put in the sole of a boot and sent out to sea; and then they sailed to the white men’s country and became their forefathers. If you look at a ship’s hull from above, it is just like the sole of a kamik. But the girl, who was enraged with her father for having made her take his dog for a husband, had him torn to pieces by her children. Here ends this story. On the island where the girl and the dog lived there is a grave in which there are human bones and the bones of a dog. So the story must be true. [Told by Arnajaq] (Rasmussen, 1908, p104-105).
On an odd side note, Rasmussen died at age 54 from food poisoning after eating some bad Kiviak, a traditional Inuit food where some 500 auks (superficially similar to small penguins) are fermented inside a hollowed out seal and served up at celebrations. Remember, you should ask for your Kiviak well done. So after a rocky start to their nuptials, to say the least, the dog and the woman reached some sort of accommodation and consummated their relationship, producing a bevy of offspring. Two of their children were Inuit. Two were straight up dogs. Two more were dogs with human heads. And the remaining four were various versions of white people, characterized by their dispositions. The white men were put to sea, and ultimately were presumed to be the progenitors of the Europeans that eventually reappeared and said they owned everything. Understandably, the poor Inuit girl sent the dogs after Daddy. Who wouldn’t? At any rate, having accounted for the existence of the white folks, the Inuit explained the presence of the other non-Inuits they were beginning to encounter as they were forced to move southward due to climactic changes, and the presumption was that these must either actually be the Adlet or their descendants.
The Adlet or Erqigdlit. In the tradition treating of this tribe a similar change occurs. The Labrador Eskimo call the Indians of the interior Adlet. The tribes west of Hudson Bay call them Erqigdlit. The Baffin Land Eskimo and the Greenlanders have forgotten this relation altogether, but denote with the term a fabulous tribe with dogs’ legs and a human body. The name Adla is used as far north as Cumberland Peninsula, the Akudnirmiut and the more northern tribes using the term Erqigdlit. It is difficult to account for the use of these different terms in both senses (Smithsonian, 1885, p640).
A variety of stories are told of encounters with the Adlet (or Erqigdlit), but the general consensus is that they were definitely monstrous hybrid human-dogs, and not especially friendly either, often depicted as bloodthirsty.
The adlet or erqigdlit are described as having the lower part of the body like that of a dog, while the upper part is like that of man. They are ferocious and fleet of foot, and encounters between them and Eskimo visitors always terminate in a fierce battle, which generally ends with the death of the adlet. In some cases the visitors are saved by the kindness of a single individual (Boas, 1904, p9).
Scholars and historians, scoffing as they do, laugh at the notion that the human race originated in the Arctic, and differentiated through selective cross-breeding with other species. In fact, countless mythological traditions have humans being born from all manner of natural objects (e.g. made from clay, the severed limbs of a primordial god, ribs), so in a purely logical turn, the Inuit myths suggest that there is no reason to assume that humans can’t have a variety of species as children.
We may be sure it was not mere courtesy or fantasy which ruled that if rocks and trees and animals could bear human children, likewise human mothers might bring forth animal offspring. It is not surprising, therefore, to find an Eskimo legend which relates how originally all men were Eskimos (Todd, 1913, p67).
One thing is abundantly clear. The human race originated with the Inuit. Other versions of the myth of the woman who married a dog, suggest that her children included five dogs and five monsters. The dogs were set sail, and eventually became white Europeans. The monstrous children were the forefathers of the Indian tribes the Inuit kept running across. As the Inuit were forced south by changing weather patterns, they would increasingly have come into conflict with other natives, who would no doubt have resented the incursions, resulting in sometimes bloody conflict.
Adlet. A fabulous people that the Eskimo believe to be descended from a dog. A woman married a red dog and bore five dogs, which she cast adrift in a boat, and also five children of monstrous shape. The dogs reached the other side of the ocean and begot the white people. The monsters engendered the Adlet, terrible beings, identified by the Labrador Eskimo with the Indians, of whom they formerly lived in dread, also by the Eskimo of the western shores of Hudson bay, who, however, called this misbegotten and bloodthirsty race Erqigdlit. The Eskimo of Greenland and Baffin island, having no Indian neighbours, pictured the tribe of monsters with human heads, arms, and trunks joined to the hind legs of dogs (Hodge, 1913, p6-7).
If Rousseau were alive today, he’d be living in Colorado, playing the bongos and participating in poetry slams, talking about the nobility of locally grown pot. His whole notion of the “noble savage” was obviously a bit condescending, if reasonably well intentioned, but vestiges remain in our approaches to the folklore of others. As Foucault pointed out, the thing about a classification system is that its primary function is to exclude, that is, to make other classifications unthinkable. Its hard not to measure the mythologies of other cultures through the lens of one’s own acculturation. We may generously call their mythologies elegant, beautiful, or poetic, but deep down we chuckle and feel that they are inherently silly. Its only in the past few hundred years that Western civilization began to abandon the notion that the physiognomic differences between human groups resulted from biblical conflict between Noah and his sons.
We are too apt to speak of Western civilization not only as if it had originated in the West, but as if it had reached its climax. As a matter of fact, judged by a sane standard, our civilization is faulty and undeveloped to a degree. If we omit physical science and industrial inventions, there is scarcely a department in Western life which to the seeing eye is not in a sad backward condition, nearer to savagery than to the ideal. Think only in this connection of the dire poverty, the semi-drunkenness and drunkenness, the absence of robust health, the high death-rate, the enormous armaments, the backwardness in education (especially in the home), the interest in mere pleasure and sensationalism, which prevail so very widely; or remember what subject peoples say, viz., that Western intoxicants, diseases, and exploitation have been their physical and moral ruin. Under these conditions, those who read history aright will look forward hopefully to the East’s helping to stimulate and develop the civilization of the West (Spiller, 1913, p335-336).
The point is not to suggest that one classification system for the human race is superior to another (keeping in mind that biologists themselves dismiss race as biologically unimportant), rather that all human societies have always created taxonomies of the other folks they meet and coming face to face with the absurdity of another culture’s classification, rather than making us feel like we’ve got it going on up there in the cranium, should highlight the absurdity of our own. The fact that this fuzzy concept of race has such enormous impacts in the Western world on everything from economics to health to education, suggests that we have taken our own absurd categorizations to a dangerous extreme. We are creatures of the present particularly when it comes to sorting things in the universe, no matter how we pretend that it is our historical memory and concern for the future that govern us, so we live in an unrecognized mythological environment and imagine it to be the pinnacle of intellectual evolution. An old Inuit proverb recognized this, warning, “Yesterday is ashes; tomorrow wood. Only today the fire shines brightly”.
Allen, J. A. 1838-1921. “Boas, Eskimo of BaffinLand and Hudson Bay”. Bulletin of the AmericanMuseum of Natural History v15. New York: [AmericanMuseum of Natural History], 1901.
Boas, Franz. “The Folklore of the Eskimo”. American Folklore Society. Journal of American Folklore v.17. Washington [etc.]: American Folklore Society, 1904.
Hodge, Frederick Webb, 1864-1956. Handbook of Indians of Canada. Ottawa: Printed by C.H. Parmelee, 1913.
Rasmussen, Knud, 1879-1933. The People of the Polar North: a Record. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1908.
Spiller, Gustav. “Science and Race Prejudice” The Sociological Review (October), p331-348. 1913.
Smithsonian Institution. Bureau of Ethnology. Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution v6. Washington: G.P.O., 1885.
Todd, Arthur James, 1878-1948. The Primitive Family As an Educational Agency. New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s sons, 1913.
Wardle, H. Newel. “The Sedna Cycle: A Study in Myth Evolution”. American Anthropologist v2, p568-602, 1900.