Something about the strange strands didn’t fit. Patricia Sutherland spotted it right away: the weird fuzziness of them, so soft to the touch.
The strands of cordage came from an abandoned settlement at the northern tip of Canada’s Baffin Island, far above the Arctic Circle and north of Hudson Bay. There indigenous hunters had warmed themselves by seal-oil lamps some 700 years ago. In the 1980s a Roman Catholic missionary had also puzzled over the soft strands after digging hundreds of delicate objects from the same ruins. Made of short hairs plucked from the pelt of an arctic hare, the cordage bore little resemblance to the sinew that Arctic hunters twisted into string. How did it come to be here? The answer eluded the old priest, so he boxed up the strands with the rest of his finds and delivered them to the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec.
Years passed. Then one day in 1999 Sutherland, an Arctic archaeologist at the museum, slipped the strands under a micros...