Nunani: Nomad (Part three)



By 350 A.D., the old Mongol-type culture of Tunit (i.e., Dorset) would certainly have noticed the arrival of strangers in their lands. This was a younger, aggressive, more innovative Mongol-type people called the “Thule,” and the swish of their sleds had already been carrying them eastward across North America’s Arctic for the last three centuries.

These new nomads were dependent upon marine mammals, and the Tunit had never before conceived of the technologies they brought with them: dog-teams, toggling harpoons, large skin boats, lamps, waterproof stitching, countless specialized hunting paraphernalia. There is no evidence of major hostilities between Thule and Tunit, but the Thule lived fast, ate well, and dominated the landscape. It is no wonder the Inuit oral tradition insists that the Tunit were a shy, elusive people.

The odd thing is that this makes sense. History seems to imply that, when Mongol-type nomads are placed under pressure and organized by strong leaders, they burst forth in waves of innovation and enterprise. Any human culture does, of course, but the Mongol-types seem to do it so … explosively.

Around the same time as the Thule were flowing across the Arctic, the western world was about to receive a darker, more horrifying introduction to the Mongol-type nomad — distant, Ice Age cousins of Inuit known to the Chinese as “Hsunnu,” to the West as “Huns.” Like North America’s Thule, they were caught between northern weather and southern overpopulation, so they turned westward. Armed with their own innovations, they invaded Europe in 374 A.D. Their invention was the modern stirrup, allowing combat from horseback in a manner of unprecedented efficiency. They were unstoppable. Almost overnight, they conquered the eastern Germanic kingdoms, driving others ahead of them in waves, greatly contributing to Europe’s ethnic distribution. Under Attila (450 A.D.), they clashed with the Western Empire, demanding tribute from Rome itself.

And this is where the Achilles’ Heel of the nomad shows itself. They need to keep moving. They need innovation and leadership to impel their great waves. When Attila died (453 A.D.), the Huns found themselves with neither breathing room, nor vision. Apathetic, without purpose, they intermarried with conquered peoples (e.g., “Hun-garia”) and faded away.

Luckily, over in North America, the Thule still had lots of room left, and no dire enemies to contend with. By 1000 A.D., they had spread as far as Greenland. But once they reached this limit, there was still the entire Arctic to cycle around within.

They could never know that there was an entire other world held in terror of similarly nomadic people, distantly related to them. At the time Thule had reached the easternmost Arctic, yet another Mongol-type people were swelling in numbers, in northern Asia. Within only two centuries, these nomads were united under a leader named Temujin, commonly known as “Genghis Khan.” He envisioned universal Mongol dominion. With innovative military tactics, espionage, and communication systems of his own design, he conquered 7,821,400 square kilometres (85% more than Napoleon) in 20 years. His empire, at the time, was entirely nomadic. Genghis Khan’s heirs continued the conquest, so that by 1241, they owned Asia, Russia, the Ukraine, eastern Europe, and had entered central Europe. They had never lost a battle. By 1279, they were the uncontested world superpower.

Ultimately, the Mongol Empire was checked by its own nomadic needs. Later generations of Khans became urbanized, over-content with their holdings. They shed nomadic culture. Eventually, their borders shrank, their Empire fragmented, then ceased to be. The stubbornly nomadic ones among them went back to their former, Mongolian lifestyle, where they could continue to roam at will.

By 1550 A.D., the Thule had reached the limit of their own expansion, and were developing a lifestyle easily recognizable today. They had become Inuit, and they had no idea that, over in the Old World, their distant cousins had arisen and faded into a memory from a few generations before.

They had no idea that theirs was the peculiar branch of humanity that had wandered out of the Ice Age, with a need to keep moving, not necessarily needing conquest, but simply the feeling of wind in their hair. And if the comparison of these “cousins” illustrates one truth, it is this: nomadic blood runs cold only when it is still. It is a fact that modern Inuit would do well to remember.


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