One of the mysteries of anthropology is the reported presence of ‘blond’ Inuit in the western Canadian Arctic, specifically on and around Victoria Island. They were first noticed by the explorer Sir John Franklin and by Alaskan whalers.
The travellers who have been most surprised by the appearance of the Victoria Island Eskimos are those who are most used to Eskimos of the regular or “pure” type. Such a party were Klinkenberg’s white and (Alaskan) Eskimo crew of the American whaling ship Olga … and it was through her captain and crew that I first half-realized that the people of western Victoria Island were conspicuously different from other Eskimos. … What half-convinced me that he [the captain] was right was the emphatic corroboration of the Alaska Eskimo members of Klinkenberg’s crew, who said that the Victoria Islanders were in appearance like a group of half-castes, although they were wholly Eskimo in language and customs. (Stefansson, 1908, pp. 375-376)
These impressions were confirmed by the anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson for Victoria Island and by the anthropologist Knud Rasmussen for adjacent islands:
In reality these blond types are not peculiar to Victoria Island. In King William Island and on Back River, as well as on Kent Peninsula, I found types which had exactly the same outward characteristics, the same light complexion, the same reddish or brownish hair, the gray and even nearly blue eyes, and remarkably abundant beards—something which is elsewhere uncommon among Eskimos.
(Stefansson, 1908, p. 379)
Stefansson advanced four possible explanations: a) recent European intermixture with whalers or fur traders; b) ancient European intermixture with the Greenland Norse; c) ancient migration of a fair-haired Eurasian people from across the Bering Strait; and d) independent mutation. He was skeptical about the first two explanations:
… no whaler or other person familiar with it has ever suggested that any whaler came in contact with the Victoria Islanders before Captain Klinkenberg in 1905.
The only tenable hypothesis in connection with whaling is that the European blood may have come from the east side of the continent through the Americans, Scotch, and others who have engaged in Hudson Bay and Baffin Bay whaling for centuries. Here we are dealing with no impossibility any more than we were in the case of the earlier and more numerous Greenland Norsemen. But if the mixing of races is so recent, it would appear that it should be most conspicuous farther east where the whalers had their headquarters, fading away as one goes westward. The opposite is the case.
(Stefansson, 1908, pp. 377-378)
Stefansson opted for the last explanation as the most probable: “It is possible that for some so-called accidental reason blond individuals may have been born from time to time in the past from parents of pure Eskimo blood, and that these may have perpetuated themselves” (Stefansson, 1908, p. 381).
Some new light has been shed by a team of researchers headed by Palsson (2008). They collected genetic data from 299 Inuit on Victoria Island and at adjacent locations, as well as from other Inuit or Inuit-related groups (Greenland Inuit, Chukchi, Siberian Yupiit, and Alaskan Aleut). No evidence of European admixture is apparent in the Victoria Island Inuit with respect to either maternally or paternally inherited lineages. But there is evidence of maternal lineages from a pre-Inuit source, possibly the Dorset people who inhabited the Canadian Arctic a thousand years ago.
What conclusion should we draw? Palsson (2008) concluded that the existence of blondism among the Victoria Island Inuit had been blown out of all proportion. Alternately, it may be that new alleles for hair and eye color arose independently through mutation, with some kind of selection pressure favoring these color traits over the original black hair and brown eyes. Finally, it may be that a pre-Inuit population of Eurasian origin, perhaps the Dorset or even the earlier Paleoeskimos, had a significant incidence of fair hair and fair eyes. Such traits might then have persisted through admixture in this Inuit group. The last possibility might not be so far-fetched, since fair hair has been reported among the Yukaghir of eastern Siberia (von Hellwald, 1882).
Palsson, G. (2008). Genomic anthropology. Coming in from the cold? Current Anthropology, 49, 545-568.
Stefansson, V. (1927). My Life with the Eskimos. New York: The MacMillan Co.
von Hellwald, F. (1882). Völkerkunde, Nurnberg.