The Father of Eskimology

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The Father of Eskimology

Greenlandic–Danish polar explorer and anthropologist Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen (1879 – 1933) was called the “father of Eskimology” and was the first European to cross the Northwest Passage via dog sled. He remains well known in Greenland, Denmark and among Canadian Inuit.

Knud Rasmussen was born in 1879 in Ilulissat, Greenland, to a Danish missionary and his inuit-Danish wife. He grew up among the Kalaalit, learning to speak Kalaallisut, hunt and drive dog sleds. He was later educated in Lynge, North Zealand.

The Father of Eskimology
Knud Rasmussen in Thule. Photo: Visit Denmark

Related: The Voyages of a Modern Viking

Rasmussen embarked on his first expedition from 1902 – 1904, the Danish Literary Greenland Expedition, to investigate and document Inuit culture. Afterwards he went on a speaking tour describing his findings and, in 1908, he married Dagmar Andersen.

In 1910, he founded the Thule trading station in Cape York, Greenland with his friend Peter Freuchen, which became the starting point for Rasmussen’s seven polar expeditions from 1912 – 1933. The trips were very dangerous – explorers could freeze or starve to death, or be crushed by ice. Two crew members died on the second expedition, and Rasmussen was once attacked by a walrus.

Related: The Viking Mystery on Greenland

The Father of Eskimology
Two fishermen working near the front of the Knud Rasmussen glacier in East Greenland. Photo: Polar research and policy initiative

The aim of the treks was varied, from collecting more information on the inuit to trying to establish whether a water channel existed between Greenland and Peary Land (it does not). Rasmussen also became the first European to cross the Northwest Passage via dog sled.

Related: Can You Name the World’s Largest Island?

Rasmussen died of pneumonia in 1933, contracted after he suffered a bout of food poisoning on the final Thule journey. He died in Copenhagen and is buried in the city’s Western Cemetery. The Rasmussen family home in Hundested has been preserved as a memorial.

The Father of Eskimology
Knud Rasmussen (right) and Lauge Koch (left). [Photo: Holger Damgaard, National Library of Denmark.
Knud Rasmussen in numbers:
He spent 2 years of failed auditions. From 1898 – 1890, Rasmussen tried to make it as an actor.

He spent 16 months travelling across North America by dog-sled on a single expedition.

He has donated 15,000 archeological and ethnographic objects to Copenhagen National Museum.

He died at age 54 after eating kiviaq (fermented auks in a dead seal) – a Greenlandic specialty.

The Father of Eskimology, written by Tor Kjolberg

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