9 Things You Probably Didn't Know Were Inuit Inventions

Did you know that first sunglasses were possibly invented by the Inuit?
Christopher McFadden

Who are the Inuit?

The Inuit, which means "the People" in the Inuktitut language, are a group of indigenous people who primarily live in the northernmost regions of Canada. Once called Eskimos (meaning "eater of raw meat" by other Native Americans), they are individually known as Inuk, and they call their homeland Inuit Nunangat.


inuit inventions people
Traditional Inuit clothing. Source: Ansgar Walk/Wikimedia

This name refers to the land, water, and ice contained within the Arctic region which they traditionally inhabit. Depending on who you ask, their homeland can also extend to the land occupied by the Inuit in Alaska and Greenland too.

Traditionally, the Inuit were hunters and gatherers who moved seasonally from one camp to another. Seal, whale, duck, caribou, fish, and berries were some of the main sources of nutrition. Today, these foods are still popular, along with foods like fruit and vegetables that must be imported.

What are the Inuit known for?

The Inuit have a long and fascinating history and culture. While the Arctic regions of Canada may have been occupied since around 4,000BC, the ancestors of the present-day Inuit appear to have arrived around 1,050AD and are culturally related to the Inupiat people of Northern Alaska, Katladlit of Greenland, and Yuit, or Yupit of Siberia and Western Alaska. The Norse people may also have been a major influence on the early Inuit, from around the 11th Century.

Since then, explorers, whalers, traders, missionaries, and scientists have further influenced and fundamentally changed the Inuit culture over time. Although largely ignored by the Canadian federal government until 1939, the Inuit were often subjected to enforced assimilation into a “Canadian” way of life. Children were often sent to residential schools in Canada and some communities were forced to relocate and give up their nomadic lifestyle. The government also imposed a naming system on the Inuit that forced them to be referred to by number, rather than name, when dealing with the government.

That being said, the Inuit have managed to preserve their rich culture and language. 

According to Statistics Canada, in 2016, the recorded population of the Inuit was just over 65,000. This marked a 29.1% increase since the previous census in 2006. 

In Canada, the Inuit comprise around 3.9% of the total indigenous population of the country. According to the same statistics, somewhere in the region of 73% of the Inuit lived in Inuit Nunangat, with 63.7% living in Nunavut, followed by Nunavik (in northern  Québec), the western arctic (Northwest Territories and Yukon), known as Inuvialuit, and Nunatsiavut (located along the northern coast of Labrador).

inuit inventions inuit art
Example of Inuit art. Source: SVAUGUST/Wikimedia

The Inuit comprise of eight main Inuit ethnicities that include: 

The Inuit also have around 5 main dialects of speech including Inuvialuktun (Inuvialuit region in the Northwest Territories); Inuinnaqtun (western Nunavut); Inuktitut (eastern Nunavut dialect); Inuktitut (Nunavik dialect); and Nunatsiavumiuttut (Nunatsiavut). According to the same 2016 statistics, somewhere in the region of 83.9% of the Inuit self-reported as having a conversational knowledge of one or more Inuit dialects. 

Today, most Inuit are more sedentary when compared to their ancestors primarily nomadic lifestyle. 

What are some examples of Inuit inventions?

And so, without further ado, here are some examples of Inuit inventions. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. The Inuit may have invented the first sunglasses

Inuit inventions sunglasses
Demonstration of how Inuit sunglasses are worn. Source: Claire Rowland/Wikimedia

While you'll not likely find these sunglasses in your local opticians, the Inuit invented a form of early sunglasses. Consisting of a strip of hard material with small slits cut into it to see through, these "sunglasses" helped remove the glare of reflected sunlight when traversing the snow-covered landscape of the Arctic circle.

Technically known as snow goggles, this device has proved invaluable in helping prevent snow blindness when outdoors. Technically known as photokeratitis, snow blindness is a kind of sunburn of the eyes, and it can permanently damage the eyesight if precautions are not taken.

These goggles were often made of bone, ivory, or wood, and the slights help block out most of the dangerous UV radiation exposure to a wearer's eyes. 

2. The Inukshuk is a very important Inuit invention

Inuit inventions inukshuk
Source: BretA343/Wikimedia

If you have ever visited Northern Canada, you will eventually run into strange piles of stones known as Inukshuk. Pronounced "i-NOOK-shook", these piles of stones are something like an early-GPS.

Made of carefully piled local stones, these structures served primarily as navigational aids for passing travelers. Often used to mark sacred places, good hunting grounds, fishing spots, etc, they also worked as handy signposts in a landscape often covered in a sea of pure white snow, with few other landmarks.

They are so important to the Inuit, that a stylized Inukshuk takes pride of place in the center of the flag of the Nunavut

But they also performed many other important functions. Inukshuks were used by hunters to hide while waiting to ambush prey. The prey would be herded down a path where hunters waited before striking at the most opportune moment. 

Some piles of stones look like a replica person with a head, arms, and legs. Often called Inukshuk, these are actually called inunnguat or inunnguaq by the Inuit are not technically speaking true Inukshuk

In Inuit tradition, it is forbidden to destroy these structures. Why you would want to destroy one anyway is anyone's guess.

3. The igloo is probably one of their most famous inventions

Inuit inventions igloo
Source: Rristvos/Flickr

Igloos or iglu, also known as aputiak, are another very interesting invention of the Inuit. In case you are not aware, these are temporary winter homes or hunting-ground shelters built by the Canadian and Greenlandic Inuit.

The term is derived from the Inuit word igdlu ("house") which in turn is related to Iglulik (an Inuit town) and Iglulirmiut (an Inuit group) that both come from an island of the same name. These structures are made from blocks of snow that are stacked into a dome-shaped structure. 

While an iconic structure associated with the Inuit around the world, they are generally only used in an area located between the Mackenzie River delta and Labrador. In the summer months, Inuit tended to build temporary sealskin or, more recently, cloth tents.

Building an Igloo is no small feat, and builders must first find a deep snowdrift of fine-grained compact snow. They then cut the snow into blocks using a snow knife — which is a swordlike instrument made of bone or metal. Each Igloo building block is cut to be roughly 2 foot by 4 foot (60 cm by 120 cm), and approximately 8 inches (20 cm) thick. The first row is laid out in a rough circle on a flat stretch of snow. 

Overall dimensions of Igloos do vary, and are generally built to house a single-family unit. 

After the first blocks have been laid, their top surfaces are cut at a slight angle to form a spiral from one end to the other. Additional blocks are then added to the spiral, drawing the structure inward until the dome is completed, except for a hole at the top for ventilation. 

Loose snow is then used to fill in any gaps between the blocks and act as a kind of cement. A clear piece of ice or seal intestine may also be used to serve as a window. 

Access is made into the Igloo via a narrow, semicylindrical passageway, roughly 10 feet (3 meters) long, that often contains small vaults for storing supplies. A simple "door" is also added to the access passageway using some sealskin.

Inside the Igloo, simple furnishings are used, including a shallow saucer to burn seal blubber for heat and light, and a low sleeping platform of snow, covered with willow twigs and caribou fur are present. 

4. You can thank the Inuit for the kayak the too

inuit inventions kayak
Inuit seal hunter in a kayak. Source: wili hybrid/Wikimedia

You are probably more than familiar with the kayak, but did you know it was originally invented by the Inuit? The word comes from the Inuit word qajaq and is also a common piece of kit for other Arctic circle indigenous peoples like the Yup'ik of Alaska and the Russiam far-east and Aleut of the Aleutian Isles. 

Such boats were and still are, used to hunt on inland lakes, rivers, and in the coastal waters of the Arctic Ocean, North Atlantic, Bering Sea, and the North Pacific. The very first examples were likely fashioned from a stitched sealskin, or other animal skin, stretched over a wood or whalebone-skeleton frame. 

The first kayaks are believed to have originated as early as 4,000 years ago with the oldest surviving example known dating to 1577 AD. This kayak is currently exhibited in the North American department of the State Museum of Ethnology in Munich, Germany

Inuit kayaks have lengths three times the span of a builder's outstretched arms (typically 20-22 inches/51-56cm), and the cockpit width was usually big enough to accommodate the builder's hips plus two fists. They are usually around 7 inches (18 cm), or so, deep. 

5. Toboggan's are also an Inuit invention

inuit inventions toboggan
Source: Library Archives, Canada/Wikimedia

Another interesting Inuit invention is the toboggan. Devised to help Inuit hunters carry furs and meat over snow and ice, today they bring a lot of joy to many children around the world. 

Traditional toboggans are made of several wooden boards, like birch, each around six inches (15 cm) wide, 1/4 inch (0.6 cm) thick, and six-foot-long (182 cm) fastened parallel to one another using battens that are sowed together using deerskin. Thought designs can vary.

The front is usually curved upwards to help deal with the uneven surfaces of snow cover. 

They typically also have a thin rope attached across the edge of the end of the curved front to provide a form of rudimentary steering. Such devices are typically ridden by a front "driver" who places their feet in the space behind the curved front, and other passengers sit behind grasping the waists of people in front of them. 

6. Hoods that double as built-in baby carriers are another Inuit invention

inuit inventions parka
Source: Fiona Paton/Flickr

Yes, you read that right. The Inuit also invented a special kind of clothing with a large hood that could be used to carry babies in!

Called a parka, these garments were specially designed to ensure the survival of their wearers in the harsh Arctic climate. Traditional parkas were made from either sealskin or caribou skin, and they all come with large, well-insulated hoods.

Typically, a parka is hip-lengthed and is stuffed with down or, more recently, warm synthetic fiber, and the hood is fur-lined. 

However, the women's parkas of the Inuit of the Eastern Arctic often had larger hoods that could double up as baby carriers. These special parkas are called amauti

Parka is typically worn by Inuit hunters and for kayaking. 

7. The kakivak fishing spear is an important piece of kit

inuit inventions kakivar
Source: CambridgeBayWeather/Wikimedia

Another important Inuit invention is the specially designed fishing spear called a kakivar. This ingenious and lethal-looking hunting tool consisted of a long wooden handle that either bifurcated into an open arch or had two ribs attached at the "business end" to form a kind of pseudo-trident.

Each curved prong has a sharpened piece of bone, or metal, "tooth" with a third elongated "tooth" extending from the shaft to the center of the opening made between the pronged hooks. You can probably work out how it worked. 

8. The Inuit harpoon helped inspire the Temple's Toggle harpoon

inuit inventions harpoon
A modern version of the Inuit "toggling harpoon". Source: CambridgeBayWeather/Wikimedia

The Temple's Toggle, aka the "Toggling Harpoon" or "Blood harpoon" invented by Lewis Temple in the 1800s, was a revolutionary design at the time. These kinds of harpoons were designed to have the head detach when it hit the prey.

The head, would in turn, then twists inside the animal to make it easier for hunters to haul the animal onto a ship or to shore.

The design proved so effective that the head often penetrates deep below the animal's skin and blubber, often reaching the muscle underneath. This has the added benefit of preventing the head from slipping out of the prey as it inevitably struggles to get free.

Modern European and American versions of it quickly became the standard and widely replaced the "two flue" and "single flue" harpoons used in whaling fleets. 

9. Snowshoes are also thought to be an Inuit invention

Inuit inventions snowshoe
Traditional snowshoe. Source: katpatuka/Wikimedia

And lastly, another interesting Inuit invention is snowshoes. While some historians believe the first snowshoes may have appeared in Central Asia between 4-6 thousand years ago, by far the most advanced versions prior to 20th-century versions were developed by the Inuit

The Inuit have two styles, one triangular or ellipsoid in shape, and the other nearly circular in form. Both were designed such as to spread the weight of the wearer over a larger surface area for traversing deep, loose, and powdery snow. 

Interestingly, it seems the Inuit did not use them often, as much of their migration paths were over sea ice and tundra. 

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap.

These are but a few of the most interesting and notable Inuit inventions. 

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