Wild Explorer > Polar Bear > Traditional Knowledge: Genius on Ice

Polar Bears - Traditional Knowledge

Text by Liz McKenzie and Richard Nelson      Photos and Sounds by Richard Nelson

Genius on Ice

A vast and fathomless continent of ice sprawls across the northern polar regions of the earth. It is a world like no other, at once stunningly beautiful yet almost unimaginably harsh. The great ice pack is sometimes quiet and inert, as if it were frozen in eternity, but roaring frigid gales and deep currents often set it into motion. The ice shudders and rumbles, splits into immense drifting floes, piles into mountains of fractured slabs.

At a glance, this empty mass of ice should be devoid of life…but the ocean below teems with plankton, with tiny shrimp and worms, with clams and crabs and fish. In the black waters of cracks and leads there are seals, walrus, and whales. And at the intersections between ice, water, and land live two of the world's most extraordinary and brilliant, hunters—the polar bear and the Inuit or Eskimo.

Indigenous people of the arctic have lived in close contact with polar bears for thousands of years. Theirs is a remarkable and unlikely relationship, in which each is sometimes prey to the other. It is possible that the polar bear, with its uncommon animal intelligence, may watch from concealment as a human passes—in effect studying its companion hunter. And it is certain that Eskimo people have spent countless generations studying the polar bear, amassing a body of knowledge that modern scientists may find enviable.

It can be said that the arctic ice gave birth to these two remarkable hunters and has sustained them into the modern era. With global climate change, their future is now in question, but their history and present relationship is one of the most fascinating stories on our planet.

Original Science

Eskimo people who live along the far northern coast of Alaska call themselves Inupiaq (plural Inupiat)—meaning "the Real People". If the name brims with self-confidence, it is richly deserved, as anyone fortunate enough to join Inupiaq hunters on the ice would attest.

In the Inupiaq language there are many names for Nanuq, the polar bear, including: Nanuayaaq—a small cub; Atiqtaq—a second year cub still traveling with its mother; Avinnaq—a young bear recently independent from its mother; and Atiqtagrualik—a mother with full grown cubs.

The Inupiat and other Eskimo people are passionately dedicated to learning about their world, in the same way that Western scientists are. In fact, the Eskimo people are the original arctic scientists, closely studying every aspect of their natural surroundings.

Careful observation and reliable knowledge are essential for success and survival in the arctic. Hunters must understand the intricate details of animal behavior and ecology. The more they know, the more skilled they become in pursuit of their prey. For this reason, traditional Eskimo hunters are meticulous observers of animals and their environment, engaged in constant lifelong discovery, passing along whatever they learn to others in endless discussions of the hunt.

The resulting encyclopedic accumulation of reliable, objective, detailed knowledge is the foundation that sustains Eskimo communities living at the farthest edge of human possibility Nothing reveals this more clearly than Inupiaq people's understanding of the polar bear.

Stories Written in Snow

As a polar bear travels across the pack ice, it writes a story in tracks and other signs. Drawing on a lifetime of learning and experience, the attentive Inupiaq hunter translates those signs into a vivid picture of the animal's passage.

He can tell how long since the animal was here, its size and condition, which direction it was going, and whether it was hunting or simply traveling. For example, a set of large tracks could mean a healthy male; while small, narrow prints with even smaller ones along side, may be an undernourished female with cubs.

If the snow in the tracks is powdery-soft, they were made just a short time ago; slightly crusted tracks indicate that the bear passed by several hours before. Very hard tracks with frost crystals inside are those left a day ago or longer. In this way, the hunter knows if he has a chance to catch up with the bear.

It's likely that the earliest Eskimo hunters learned how polar bears stalk seals that are sleeping on the ice. They only needed a leap of the imagination—and a major dose of bravado—to discover a remarkable hunting technique. On rare occasions, a hunter who spots a polar bear might lie down on the ice, imitate a basking seal, and trick the bear into stalking him. When the polar bear comes close enough, the crafty hunter can sometimes make a kill.

Lessons from the White Bear

Is it possible that over thousands of years, living in close contact with polar bears, Eskimo people have learned not only about these bears but also from them?

There are some close similarities between the ways that Eskimo people and polar bears hunt and behave on the ice. For example, ringed and bearded seals maintain vertical tunnels or breathing holes through the solid winter ice. A polar bear searches for these holes, which are marked by a small icy dome with a quarter-sized hole in the top. The bear waits silently on the downwind side, sometimes for many hours, and when a seal comes up, the bear smashes the dome ice with a paw, simultaneously crushing the seal's skull. The bear then pulls the seal up through the hole and eats it.

Eskimo people hunt seals the same way. In the old days, they would find a breathing hole and wait, sometimes as long as 24 hours, then harpoon the animal, chop open the dome, and pull the seal out. The same method is still used in parts of the arctic, but with a rifle instead of a harpoon.

In the spring, ringed and bearded seals come up through holes or cracks, to sleep on top of the ice. Polar bears slowly crawl toward the seals, taking advantage of every irregularity in the ice to conceal themselves. If a seal lifts its head to look around, the polar bear stops and keeps perfectly still, then moves again when the seal sleeps.

Eskimo people say that a polar bear will cover its black nose with a paw—concealing the one part that clearly stands out against the snow. The bear may also slide forward, using its forearms like sled runners, pushing with its hind legs, keeping a low profile until it comes near enough to sprint up and kill the seal.

Eskimos hunt seals in the same way—they wear a white parka for camouflage, creep silently toward their prey, and stop whenever the seals look around, using ice mounds or piles as concealment. Finally the skilled and careful hunter may stalk close enough to kill the seal with a harpoon or rifle.

Did polar bears and Eskimos separately invent these clever ways to hunt seals? Or is it possible that the highly observant ancestral Eskimos watched the bears stalk their prey, and then adopted the same methods for themselves?

Polar bears move on the sea ice with balletic, catlike grace. They seem to flow over the jumbled hummocks and drift like the snow itself across the broad open flats. But most remarkable of all is when a great bear comes to thin, freshly formed ice. The animal spreads its legs apart to distribute its weight, and if the ice still threatens to break it might lay its belly and chest on the flexing surface, perhaps using its forearms like runners, while pushing itself along in an almost swimming motion.

Eskimo people do the same thing; they spread their legs on the ice and slide their feet forward. When the ice is especially thin, they might go on all fours, hands and feet spread as widely as possible. And if necessary, they will lie down on the rubbery ice and use a swimming motion just like polar bears.

Again…did the early human hunters learn this crucial skill by watching the original masters of life on the ice?

Fur and Meat

People have hunted polar bears for millennia, and people have occasionally been hunted by the bears in turn. While polar bears can be dangerous, the balance has overwhelmingly favored humans as hunters, while bears have nearly always been the prey.

Polar bear meat is an important part of the diet in both modern and traditional Eskimo communities. While the meat is savory and delicious, it can also be dangerous. Eskimos often prefer to eat meat—such as caribou, whale, walrus, and salmon—raw and frozen. But arctic hunters learned that you must not eat polar bear meat without first cooking it, because this meat contains the parasite Trichinella and eating it raw can transmit a disease called trichinosis. This larval invasion of the intestines and muscle tissue can have serious and even life threatening consequences.

The disease does not show up immediately and light infections can be asymptomatic, yet somehow Eskimo people connected the two events and realized that, of all the foods they ate, raw polar bear meat could make them very sick.

In addition, they learned that eating the liver of a polar bear can cause extremely serious illness, both for humans and sled dogs. Researchers much later discovered this results from toxic levels of vitamin A.

Since ancient times, Eskimo or Inuit people have used the polar bear's hide for clothing such as warm, water resistant boots as well as comfortable sleeping mattresses. In far northern Greenland, hunters wear beautiful white pants made from the polar bear. Some Eskimo groups attached furry pieces of polar bear hide onto the bottom of their boots so they could silently approach and wait beside seal breathing holes.

The intricate relationship between arctic people and polar bears continues today. For example, Inupiaq people who live in villages along the far northern coast of Alaska still follow polar bears across the ice and read the stories in their tracks, still hunt polar bears for food, still listen to the elder's stories about Nanuq.

And they still share the silent vastness of the pack ice with this graceful and mysterious snow-colored animal.

Learn more about polar bears natural history
Learn more about polar bears and climate change

For further reading:

The Last Polar Bear: Facing the Truth of a Warming World by Steven Kazlowski
Hunters of the Northern Ice by Richard Nelson

For listening:

Polar Bear Natural History
Polar Bears and Climate Change
Polar Bears: Inupiaq Native Knowledge
Russian Polar Bears
Patch Dynamics
Ice Algae

For Viewing:

PBS Nature Bears of the Last Frontier: Part 3 Arctic Wanderers

Important links:

US Fish and Wildlife Service
North Pacific Research Board
National Science Foundation
Polar Bears International
National Snow and Ice Data Center
Alaska Wildlife Notebook Series
Alaska Department of Fish and Game

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