Passage # 4

In the Arctic tundra, temperatures are below freezing for nine months out of the year. Soil in the Arctic, called permafrost, remains permanently frozen, making agriculture impossible. Travel over the land, whether covered in snow and ice in the winter or in boggy marshes during the summer, is extremely difficult. And perhaps most distressing of all, the sun shines for only six months out the year. Yet this foreboding landscape has been inhabited for more than 12,000 years, longer than any other part of North America.

Natives of this frozen land benefited from the ample food provided by the marine animals of the region. Indeed, one reason people settled in the Arctic was the almost continuous availability of seals. And although the Arctic is above the tree line, meaning that no trees can grow there, the summer months brought a rich growth of lichen (a form of plant composed of fungi and algae) and other plants. Herds of caribou would migrate north to feed on these plants, providing more food to the Arctic peoples.

Inhabitants of the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions cleverly used the environment to their advantage. The constant wind drove the snow into compact masses that in some ways resembled stone. Since they had no  wood or rock from which to build structures, inhabitants built their homes from the snow itself. Using knives and tools made from the antlers of caribou, a native of the Arctic could build a home that was both elegant and warm.

The harsh terrain demanded much of its inhabitants. Many residents of the tundra were nomadic, moving about in small bands, following the migrations of caribou, seal, and whales. Cooperation among group was essential for survival in this land, and the cultures developed elaborate rituals of reciprocity. Groups of hunters often waited patiently at the various breathing holes used by seals. If one hunter caught a seal, all would eat of it. Bravery was also rewarded, as evidenced by the Inupiaq people, who risked death by wandering far across sea ice to hunt seals.

To survive the brutal cold, Arctic dwellers devised special clothing. Most people wore parkas made of double layers of caribou hide, with boots and pants also made of the same material. The natives fashioned the coats so that caribou hair on the inner layer faced outward, whole that on the outer layer faced inward. This provided a high degree of insulation and allowed a hunter to remain outside all day.

Among the many other innovations of the people living in the Arctic were the seal-oil lamps, to compensate for the lack of natural sunlight, and snow goggles, to prevent snow blindness. These remarkable people also developed snowshoes, kayaks, and harpoons with detachable heads. Such resourceful was necessary to thrive in the unforgiving conditions of the tundra.

The Arctic inhabitants also developed a body of knowledge adapted to their unique living conditions. When American and European explorers first began long-term expeditions in the Arctic, they ignore the knowledge and the survival skills of the Arctic’s native inhabitants at their own peril. For example, some animals suited to frozen climates process nutrients from their food differently than animals in more hospitable environments. One of the notable differences is the concentration of Vitamin A in the livers of Arctic mammals. In small doses, vitamin A is an essential nutrient. In large doses, it can be toxic. Vitamin A poisoning causes hair loss, brittle bones, skin lesions, nausea, and the build up of potentially fatal pressure on the brain. Arctic hunters had long ago learned to avoid eating the liver of certain animals. The newly arrived explorers rarely trusted native folklore and did not benefit from their wisdom. Famed explorers Douglas Mawson and Xavier Mertz both suffered from vitamin A poisoning. Only Mawson survived the experience.

Later arrivals to the Arctic region required the use of advanced technology to make a living in the region. But the native inhabitants of the tundra existed there for generations without the need for guns, steel knives, vehicles, or modern clothing. Rather than struggling against the harsh environment around them, the original inhabitants found ways to live in harmony with it. The Arctic offers an abundance of riches, and these people, through their resourcefulness, were able to harvest them.
Passage 12 7/19/2011 1:25:27 PM
Passage #3 6/29/2011 12:56:05 PM
Practice reading 6/2/2011 9:02:38 PM