I don’t normally get too uptight about the names that archaeologists give to ancient humans: Lucy, Otzi, ‘hobbit’, whatever. However, I have a quibble about “Inuk”, the 4000-year old Paleo-Eskimo found in Greenland in the 1980s, and whose DNA was recently sequenced (see the article here from today’s Nature, and a good news story about the discovery here).

The main discovery of this paper (confirming decades-old archaeological thinking about Paleo-Eskimo peoples), derived from DNA taken from strands of hair found in Greenland is that “Inuk” is certainly not Inuit. In fact, he is only very distantly related to the modern peoples of the North American Arctic, and is in fact genetically more closely related to the modern Chukchi, Koryak, and Nganasan of northeastern Siberia. And hence my quibble: “Inuk” is the Inuktitut word for “person” (its plural, Inuit ‘people’, is the well-known ethnonym), and thus they’ve given him a name that doesn’t fit with his ethnolinguistic heritage, and indeed runs counter to the core argument of the study. Given that many Yupik (Alaskan natives, speakers of Eskimo-Aleut languages) find the label “Inuit” inappropriate, one could argue that it’s even more inappropriate to give it to this poor fellow who almost certainly spoke a completely unrelated language. Of course, no one spoke Chukchi 4000 years ago either.

Anyway, anyone want to bet how long it takes before someone starts talking about the Dene-Yeniseian hypothesis in relation to this find?

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

3 thoughts on “Paleo-Eskimonymy”

    1. I was wondering if anyone would mention that fact! (Of course, Yeniseian wasn’t supposed to be related to Dene, either!)

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