Object: Snow Goggles

E/1948/2/15
Inuit: Ivory Snow Goggles
North America, Arctic Coast
Materials: Ivory

These are Inuit snow goggles made of ivory and heavily weathered.  They are made in the traditional style with thin slits for eye holes.  These were worn to help cut out the glare that reflected from the sun off of the snow preventing snow blindness. This type of goggle is an example of the ingenious adaptive measures taken by Inuit people for life in the arctic that astonished westerners.  There are some examples of this type of goggle much more heavily decorated and intricately carved, but this utilitarian example shows the basic functionality of such a useful invention.  Similar technology has been utilized by NASA in space travel to reduce the risk of photokeratitis, the scalding of the cornea from exposure to bright light, when working in space.

Snow goggles were made of wood, ivory, bone, and antler and were tied using string or sinew.  They fit tightly to the wearers head to block out all light but what was coming through the small slits in the front.  The inside of the goggles were often blackened with soot to further minimize glare. The goggles helped focus vision like a permanent squint while blocking out harmful rays.  Some of the oldest of this type of goggle are dated 2000 years ago in the Old Bering Sea culture area, the western coast of Alaska.  These people were the ancestors to the Inuit or Thule culture.  Snow goggle technology was passed down to the Inuit culture and traveled with them to Canada around 800 years ago during the “Little Ice Age”, a sudden and prolonged drop in regional temperatures forcing the Inuit further south.

Snow goggles along with specialized hunting tools, weapons, fishing boats, protective clothing, living structures, and diets all exhibit cold weather adaptations that allowed the Inuit people to survive and thrive in an area considered uninhabitable to most people on earth.  These adaptations  were a result of thousands of years of trial and error leading to revelations in technology that intensified ease of living in the arctic climate. Through tradition and practice, Inuit people have adapted to these extreme climates and certain physical differences have emerged as a result of this. The ability to survive on a mainly protein based diet with little or no vegetation is one of the main physical adaptations they have adopted.  Tolerance of extreme temperatures is another.  This is accomplished through increased blood flow to the extremities that prevents frostbite. In combination with clothing and dwelling styles that intensify warm air circulation, survival in arctic temperatures is feasible.

[Katrina Kassis]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

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