The Arctic: a history

A mythical place – land of the frozen ocean, the aurora borealis and the midnight sun – the Arctic has long fascinated humankind. It has brought both riches and disaster to those who have tried to dominate it, while its indigenous people have been marginalized and exploited.

Original inhabitants
Humans may have lived in the Arctic as long as 30,000 years ago. Towards the end of the last ice age, 10,000 years ago, hunters of caribou, woolly mammoths and woolly rhino followed herds of these animals through northern Siberia. They became the first humans to cross the Bering Strait to North America; a few thousand years later, some had settled along the Arctic coasts and become expert hunters of whales, walruses and seals. Although the indigenous peoples of the circumpolar world were ethnically diverse and scattered widely, their clothes, homes and semi-nomadic lifestyle gave them much in common. They hunted the same animals, shared some spiritual beliefs and organized their communities along co-operative lines. Extraordinarily resilient, they thrived by constantly adapting to an environment that can be both harsh and abundant.

The first colonists
The ancient Greeks gave the region its name, Arktos, meaning ‘bear’ – a reference to the Great Bear constellation that circles the northern sky. The Vikings first sailed north of the Arctic Circle in the ninth century when Erik the Red colonized southern Greenland. Then in the 12th century Russia began exploring and colonizing parts of northern Siberia. By the end of the 17th century the whole vast territory was part of the Russian empire. From the 1500s, European explorers travelled further and further north, claiming lands and often kidnapping a local native person to take home as proof of possession.

The search for trade routes
Walrus ivory, seal skins and furs were traded in Europe from the Middle Ages. It was common for rulers to be presented with polar bears – Henry III kept his in the Tower of London. But Arctic exploration really took off in the 16th century with attempts to find an Arctic sea passage from the Atlantic that would ease trade with Asia. British, Dutch, Norwegian, Russian and Danish adventurers spent four centuries attempting to find a route west and east through the seemingly impenetrable ice. All failed – and many died trying, their ships smashed and sunk by the shifting ice, their crews succumbing to scurvy or freezing to death while attempting to ‘overwinter’ on some distant shore.

But these expeditions resulted in the exploration of large parts of the Arctic. New trading companies were set up, the most prominent being the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Royal Greenland Trading Company, both still in operation. Large-scale commercial whaling (for oil and bone) and walrus hunting (for tusks) began in the 1600s, making fortunes for those lucky enough not to perish. By 1900, populations of many Arctic marine mammals had collapsed and the bowhead whale was all but extinct.

The American Arctic
The British Navy made a concerted attempt from 1818 to 1845 to find the Northwest Passage, culminating in an ill-fated voyage by Sir John Franklin. The ships and crew were lost and at least 15 rescue expeditions failed to find them over the following years. It was the search for Franklin – and the Northwest Passage – that brought the US to the Arctic for the first time. The ensuing rush for whale oil off the Alaskan coast resulted in the purchase of Alaska from the Russians in 1867 for $7.2 million. Its indigenous population was neither consulted nor informed. Canada claimed its portion of the Arctic, an archipelago of over 36,000 islands, from the British in 1880.

In 1878, Finnish-Swedish scientist Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld was the first to navigate the Northeast Passage successfully. The Northwest Passage was finally traversed between 1903 and 1906 by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

The race for the Pole
Several nations made attempts to reach the North Pole after 1764. At first, many were convinced that the Arctic Ocean was open water ringed by ice, but early expeditions confirmed that it is largely frozen. The race really sped up towards the end of the 19th century, as explorers traversed the ice by foot, dog sled, even hot air balloon. In 1909, American Robert Peary (pictured, right, in his North Pole costume) claimed to have reached the North Pole just after his great rival Frederick Cook claimed the same, but the first surface expedition confirmed as having reached the Pole was that of American Ralph Plaisted, by snowmobile in 1968. The motives behind polar exploration were not merely adventure: from the 19th century scientific study of the Arctic landscape, ocean and climate were growing in importance. This led to the first ‘International Polar Year’ (1882-83), which saw scientific observation stations set up throughout the region.

Resource rush
Towards the end of the 19th century it became clear that parts of the Arctic are rich in mineral resources. In the 1890s the Klondike gold rush in Alaska and the Yukon brought thousands to the edge of the Arctic, enduring incredible hardship in the hopes of making their fortunes. This also resulted in the US and Canadian Governments imposing the rule of law on the far North for the first time. Russia found that it had masses of Arctic coal as well as diamonds, nickel and copper. Coal mining on Spitsbergen Island began in 1899 – 450,000 tons had been extracted by the 1970s. Most lucrative were oil and gas reserves, found in northern Alaska throughout the 20th century, although North America’s largest oil field was not discovered in Prudhoe Bay until 1968. Large-scale oil and gas production began in Siberia in the 1970s and has developed more recently in Canada and Norway.

War in the cold
With the outbreak of the Second World War, the Arctic became a strategic location for transport of weapons and supplies, weather stations and pockets of fighting as the Germans attempted to sabotage the Allies’ operations. Bases, airstrips and radio links transformed communications across the region; Arctic communities would never again be as isolated. As the Cold War took hold in the 1950s, the Arctic became a crucial theatre in the stand-off between superpowers. Radar stations were built across the region, with enclaves of military personnel a permanent fixture in many locations. Aerial surveys developed the most accurate maps yet, fuelling tussles over sovereignty.

Indigenous impacts
Since the 19th century the impact of trade, hunting, resource extraction and a rapidly growing immigrant population has transformed native communities and traditional ways of life. In northern Alaska, commercial activity, such as whaling and oil drilling, has drawn indigenous communities into the market economy, with alcohol and disease proving especially damaging.

Many Canadian Inuit in the 1950s were forced to abandon nomadic lifestyles and shifted to permanent settlements – including to the high Arctic to shore up Canadian claims to sovereignty – where they became dependent on government welfare. In Greenland, the original inhabitants were subjected to ‘obligatory civilization’ and in Russia, ‘Russification’ was imposed by the Soviets.

Recent years have seen a resurgence of indigenous strength. Populations are growing and traditional languages and culture are recovering. Partly prompted by resistance to industrial development in their homelands, from the 1960s Arctic people started to organize for land rights and political autonomy. They have had varying degrees of success; from the near-independence of Greenland, to the ongoing struggle for basic rights in Russia.

Sources: Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, Harvill Press, 1999; Robert McGhee, The Last Imaginary Place: a human history of the Arctic world, Oxford University Press, 2005; Richard Vaughan, The Arctic: a history, The History Press, 2008; Encyclopaedia Britannica,