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The earliest known evidence of humans in the Arctic comes from a site in Russia called Mamontovaya Kurya. In 2001 a team of archaeologists announced finding stone tools and a mammoth tusk with cut marks. The artifacts were dated to about 40,000 years ago during the ice ages. Scientists have not yet determined if the objects were made by modern humans or by Neandertals.
The first peoples to reach the Americas may have passed through the Arctic region on foot over a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, or they may have followed a northern coastal route from Asia to North America using boats, arriving perhaps as early as 20,000 years ago. A few researchers have suggested that some groups of people could have come to the Americas from Europe by crossing the Atlantic Ocean along the edge of giant ice sheets that bridged the land and ocean between the continents during the ice ages.
Long before modern Europeans reached the Arctic, much of the region had a scattered population, with Iceland a notable exception. The indigenous peoples came from many ethnic groups, using various languages, but it is believed most migrated from Asia over a span of thousands of years. The Inuit eventually reached the Atlantic Ocean in eastern Greenland, and the Saami reached Norway.
About 20 national groups exist today in the Arctic areas of Russia. These include the Komi, or Zyrian, occupying Arctic areas of European Russia; the Yakut, living mainly in the Lena River Basin; the Tungus, inhabiting a large region east of the Yenisey River; the Yukaghir, dwelling chiefly between the Yana and Indigirka rivers; and the Chukchi, inhabiting extreme northeastern Siberia. The Arctic areas of North America contain three main ethnic groups—the Aleut, the Yuit, and the Inuit—who live in northern Canada and in Alaska. The Aleut mostly inhabit the region of the Bering Sea; the Native Americans generally occupy grasslands; and the Inuit live mainly in northern Alaska, northern Canada, and coastal areas of Greenland. Canada created the separate administrative region of Nunavut in 1999 to give the local Inuit population more control over their own government and cultural development.
All the indigenous residents of the Arctic originally depended entirely on hunting or fishing, or both, and employed natural materials for their clothing, tools, homes, and vehicles. Articles were well designed and skillfully made, and some were artistically decorated. Well-known are the Inuit kayak, parka, and harpoon. The indigenous peoples in the Arctic region today have adopted some modern technology such as guns and snowmobiles, but also retain rights to subsistence hunting of marine mammals and other traditional practices.
The Arctic has also been settled by persons from more southern areas. Norwegians and Russians reached the seacoast of northern Europe about 1,100 years ago, when the Norse were also settling Iceland. In recent times, scientists, miners, and missionaries have established communities in the Arctic.
There are no large cities in the Arctic areas of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, the largest cities generally having fewer than 10,000 inhabitants. The Arctic regions of Scandinavia and Russia, however, contain several communities of considerable size, such as Murmansk and Noril’sk, in Russia, and Tromso, in Norway. Reykjavik, Iceland, is an important urban center.