Arctic animals

Arctic Animals

The relationship between Arctic peoples and animals is crucial not only to practical and cultural life in the region but often to survival itself. In an environment in which food is so scarce, every available resource must be utilised with maximum efficiency.

Arctic peoples have long been attuned to the rhythms of animal life in their frozen home. Much of this revolves around annual migratory cycles, the movement of large numbers of geese, caribou, musk oxen, seals, walrus and whales between summer and winter hunting and nesting territories provide the majority of traditional Arctic food supplies. These animals are tracked along the same migrations routes known by the Arctic peoples for thousands of years, communities moving in concert with these routes along an annual cycle to maximise efficiency in hunting. Equipment is specially designed to effectively bring down animals with the minimum effort necessary; spears with bone spurs to catch geese, toggle harpoons which trap and tire huge sea mammals and snares and traps for smaller prey.

Every part of these animal is used by the Arctic peoples; their meat is stored frozen and eaten all year round, their skins are stitched into warm waterproof clothing, their bone and ivory and sinew used in construction and for manufacturing household tools. Almost everything the Arctic peoples traditionally used in their day to day lives was made from the products of their hunting.

Yet hunting was not the only way in which Arctic peoples interact with animals. Some animals, and in particular dogs, were kept as part of dog packs which pulled sledges over the ice. These dogs, specially bred for their strength and endurance were prized possessions, cared for and fed from the limited supplies. The dog teams granted Arctic peoples mobility, the ability to travel long-distances between seasonal encampments and far out onto the ice in search of prey. Dogs also offered protection against polar bears, the apex hunter of the Arctic, which often competed for prey and territory with Arctic communities.

The polar bear is one of the most important animals in the cosmology of the Arctic peoples; along with caribou, seal and other large creatures, as well as a host of invisible spirits, Arctic peoples employ these animals in the ways they understand the world. Most significant is the relationship between hunters and prey. Hunters must engage with the spirit of their prey, become one with the prey and thank it for giving its life to enable the hunter and his family to survive. Much modern Arctic art revolves around this symbiotic relationship between humans and animals, interacting physically and spiritually as part of the cycles of life in the Arctic.

Collection Information

These objects are only a part of our collections, of which there are more than 350,000 objects. This information comes from our collections database. Some of this is incomplete and there may be errors. This part of the website is also still under construction, so there may be some fields repeated or incorrectly formatted information.

The database sometimes uses language taken from historical documents to help research, which may now appear outdated and even offensive. The database also includes information on objects that are considered secret or sacred by some communities.

If you have any further information about objects in our collections or can suggest corrections to our information, please contact us: enquiry@horniman.ac.uk