Science & Environment

Scientist will live as an Inuit for one year

House in northern Greenland (Image: Hivshu)
Image caption Dr Pax Leonard will live in one of the world's most remote settlements

A Cambridge University researcher will set out on 15 August on a year-long expedition to Greenland to document the threatened Inuit culture.

Dr Stephen Pax Leonard will spend a year living with a community in Qaanaaq in the far north of the country.

Once he has learned their dialect - Inuktun - he plans to record and archive the literature, songs and myths that form the basis of the culture.

Image caption The Inughuits rely on traditional hunting methods to catch the sea mammals that form their diet

The Inuits in Greenland are the World's northernmost settled population.

For centuries, the Inughuits - as these northenmost Inuits are known - have lived as hunter-gatherers in the remote region. Dr Pax Leonard describes the area as the "cultural centre of Greenland".

But their culture and language are now endangered, he told BBC News.

"The reason for this is global warming Their lifestyle is almost entirely based on hunting sea mammals... They insist on using the traditional methods of hunting - dog sleds and kayaks.

And because the ice is thinning, it's becoming much more dangerous to travel and hunt that way."

Their language, which has never been written down in full, is used to communicate their history, spirituality and other forms of practical knowledge.

When he arrives, Dr Pax Leonard will talk to his hosts in Danish, but he hopes to become fluent in the Inuktun language during his first few months, so he can appreciate fully the significance of traditional songs and stories.

Only 1,000 people speak Inuktun. The aim of this project is to record and describe it and then "give it back to the communities themselves in a form that future generations can use and understand," said Dr Pax Leonard.

"If their language dies, their heritage and identity will die with it."

Total darkness

Image caption Dr Pax Leonard hopes, eventually, to join hunting expeditions, during which many stories are told

The scientists said he was "excited but apprehensive" about his trip.

He will face extreme cold - the average temperature is about -25C during the winter - and several months of darkness.

"The sun goes down on 24 October and doesn't rise again until 8 March," Dr Pax Leonard told BBC News. "I've spent some time in cold places, but I've never experienced solid darkness for weeks on end.

"That's going to be difficult to deal with and I think there'll be psychological ramifications."

The biggest challenge though, is likely to be adapting to a diet of sea mammals.

"It'll be seal, walrus and narwhal - an extremely fatty diet, very low in carbohydrate and very few fruit and vegetables, so I'll be living on vitamin supplements as well."

The scientist will live in a house owned by the local priest, which has electricity, but, like all the houses in the settlement, no running water.

He will have to collect and melt ice for his water supply.

Image caption Dog sleds are becoming an increasingly dangerous method of transport

"Something as simple as taking a bath will take hours," he said.

Until they were "discovered" by the Scottish explorer Sir John Ross in 1818, the Inughuit (which literally means the "big people") believed they were the only inhabitants of the world.

In the coming decades, they could be faced with a difficult choice of either continuing to try to eke out a increasingly difficult existence in the north, or move further south.

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