Monday, 15 April 2013

The Lost Tribes at the Top of the World

Imagine making a discovery proving that people lived in a certain place over 3,000 years before anyone previously thought. Imagine making another discovery of a second previously unknown civilisation who lived there shortly afterwards. Imagine travelling to the top of the world and the nearest land point to the North Pole to do it. That’s what Eigil Knuth, Danish count, explorer, archaeologist and sculptor, did between 1948 and 1950.

Eigil Knuth was born with exploration in his blood. His ancestor turned the family estate into a country park in 1860 and filled it with rare plants gathered from around the globe. Eigil’s grandfather financed an expedition to the Arctic Ocean and Greenland, and gave the compass used by explorer Fridtjof Nansen in the first crossing of the Greenland ice field to Eigil as a birth present.

Discovering lost Arctic tribes was far from Eigil’s mind at first, though Nansen was to be a life-long hero for him. After studying fine art and sculpture Eigil managed to get a place at the gymnastic school of Niels Bukh (the Nazi gym coach who almost became the first gay Olympian). Eigil graduated as a gymnastics teacher in 1932, but before he could get a teaching job he joined the Danish excavations of Norse ruins in Greenland, and it was there that he started a love affair with the island and its culture that lasted until his death in 1996 at the age of 92.

Ever since it was first colonised by the Norse and Vikings in the 11th century Greenland has had close links with Denmark, and many Scandinavian expeditions and explorations were carried out. Eigil’s discovery of lost cultures in Greenland changed the known history of both the island and the Inuit people who migrated there long before the Norse. No-one was prepared for Eigil’s stunning evidence that they had been there long, long before they knew.

At the head of an expedition to the northwest tip of Greenland in 1948 Eigil discovered the remains of Inuit dwelling huts further north than anyone had ever found before. He named the new tribe, and another he found shortly afterwards, the Independence I and Independence II cultures, named after the fjord near which they were discovered (see map).

At first Eigil and the archaeologists believed these cultures to be the same as one already known, but Eigil became increasingly convinced they were new tribes who had travelled from Arctic Canada and across the top of Greenland thousands of years ago. Science and technology came to his rescue. Using radio carbon dating of charcoal from the remains of fires inside the dwellings and of animal bones science proved him right. The Independence I culture, the older of the two, lived over 4,000 years ago – more than 3,000 years before anyone had believed people lived in Greenland. It was a tribe from a civilisation that had been lost in history.

Eigil also found evidence of the Independence I culture on Ellesmere Island in Canada, and suggested that they were a semi-nomadic people who were following the migration on musk ox across the ice and tundra.

For Eigil the arctic regions of Greenland was his paradise. He spent many years excavating sites, and even if he hadn’t discovered two lost Arctic tribes he’d still be important in the study of later Inuit cultures who migrated to Greenland.

Because of his work and discoveries Eigil received awards from the Danish, English and Scottish Royal Geographical Societies. The king of Denmark made him a Knight of the Order of the Dannebrog (Dannebrog is the name of the Danish national flag).

Throughout his archaeological career Eigil painted and sculpted. His archaeological note books are full of his drawing and sketches, not only of the artefacts he found but also of the landscapes he saw. Using the various Greenland cultures as inspiration he produced a series of sculpted heads.

With the sexual revolution of the 1960s homosexuality became more acceptable. In his older years Eigil said he wished he had come out publicly as a young man before the sexual revolution had happened. But as many of his obituaries remarked Eigil had a life-long partner – Greenland.

Even at the age of 91 Eigil Knuth was spending the summer in remote northern Greenland at his expedition HQ. He died the following year in Copenhagen. He is regarded as one of the most important polar explorers of the 20th century, and the leading archaeologist in the history of Greenland even if he hadn’t discovered the Lost Tribes at the Top of the World.

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