Settlement and Population

In romantic imaginations, the Arctic is portrayed as an unsettled untouched place of the Earth that has been occupied only lately by humans. In reality, large parts of the arctic lands have been sparsly inhabited continuously by man since tenthousands of years: starting in Northern Sibiria, but then also Northern Alaska, and Northern Canada. Partly, these regions have been inhabited for a significantly longer time than large parts of Central Europe, which were covered by glaciers and were unhabitable until about 15 000 years before today. In contrast, Northern Sibiria and huge regions of northernmost America were too dry during the ice ages of the Quaternary for developing large-scale glaciations and stone age hunters were roaming these endless arctic tundras partly since more than 40000 years. With gigantic water masses bound on land as ice and as a result worldwide much lower sea levels, the circumpolar arctic lands reached much further north, and Asia and America were connected by a huge land bridge in the North, their northern regions being called for that period collectively Beringia. Without today´s separating Bering Strait, which currently is just maximally 90 m deep, stoneage people gradually moved East in the highest North, starting to populate also the open American tundras north of the American iceage ice barrier somewhen after about 25000 years ago. Finally, about 4500 Years ago, they reached  Greenland and even there, the northernmost parts were settled first by the Independence Culture. Therefore, man is part of these remote regions since thousands of years and only some very remote islands may not have been touched by man until the last thousand years.  

The last ice age (like its predecessors) was abruptly ended by very mild climate, dominating with some fluctuations for several thousands of years. This caused a significant melting of the arctic glaciers down to an extent that was considerably smaller than what we see there today. Today´s glacial extent in the Arctic at the moment is a result of the so-called "Little Ice Age", which started during the late Middle Ages and ended up with a maximum glacial extent about 1850. This latest cooling of the climate (like some less significant phases also before) had  consequences for the human populations in the Arctic: most wellknown is the disappearance of the last viking settlements in Greenland after 1400, where it became impossible to continue with agriculture.
The hunting indigenous people, who were expanding during and after the last ice age, contributed significantly to the extinction of quite a few species of big mammals (see "Fauna and Flora"). Like any newly arriving species in an existing ecosystem, the thin stoneage population expanded until its own hunting success set limits with the extinction of major species of prey, then forcing these populations to develop more sustainable ways of living with the local nature, for instance as reindeer herders. This acquired balance between the arctic indigenous people and their surroundings got disturbed again by the arrival of more efficient western technology during the last few hundreds of years (firearms, motorboats), which again brings about change and pressure to adapt to the changed conditions.

The last wave of immigration into the Arctic started from Europe in mediveal times (after some possible exploratory trips during the ancient world), supported by a then milder climate, which allowed agriculture as a basis of living also in newly found territories as far north as Greenland. With some Irish seafarers possibly reaching America via Iceland already in the 6th or 7th century, Scandinavians followed a few centuries later. However, with the cold of the Little Ice Age, these first European Arctic outposts disappeared and were forgotten. Instead, a new European wave followed from more central and southern European countries from 15th century onwards, starting the dramatic final expansion all around the world, including much of the Arctic. With their new and quickly developing technologies, including advances in navigation, these European (and later American) nations brought about a new period of change in Arctic nature, especially with the intensive hunting of marine mammals and most recently the massive overfishing and pollution also of arctic seas.  

Compared to the stoneage immigration of man into most arctic territories over thousands of years, the modern imigration wave needed only a few hundred years to reach even the most remote regions. This speed and the customary western perspective may be reasons for the wrong popular perception of the Arctic as a virgin region, only recently entered by man. In reality, much of the high Arctic is inhabitated much longer as many of todays densely populated parts of Europe or America, and also the human influence on nature in Arctic regions including the extinction of former species (and at the same time a resulting increase of other species who took advantage of the disappearance of competitors) is part of the history of the Arctic since tenthousands of years - like anywhere else on earth.

With an ongoing warming of climate in combination with technological development and a growing world population, immigration and population in the Arctic is likely to grow, while at the same time the size of the Arctic will shrink, as warmer climate will allow the growth of trees further north, thus changing arctic tundra into subarctic taiga similar to what happened also already during the Atlanticum after the last ice age. Man and with him agriculture will follow, as it is happening already in southern Greenland, where 600 years after the end of the vikings and their pre-Little-Ice-Age agriculture, the first fields have reappeared.


Last Modification: 01.04.2010