Starting from Greenland: “Kayak” Circumnavigates the Globe

On a different site one of the most eminent of contemporary
Turcologists pretty definitively refuted my theory. The Inuit
(Eskimo) word “kayak” and the Turkic word “caique” (etc.)
have separate etymologies in their respective languages,
which precludes the possibility of borrowing. Besides that,
the Yakuts reached the arctic very late in the game, so
they couldn’t have been the link between the Inuit (Eskimo)
word and the Turkic word. I had a lot of fun writing
the piece, but alas, in the end it turned out to be wrong.

I think that my speculations about the Ivory Road and
Silk Road meeting to connect Greenland to the
Aleutians via China remain valuable. Whether
a trade route between the two across North America
might have existed is a question I have not been
able to investigate.

The word “kayak” came into the European languages in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, probably brought from Greenland by Dutch or Danish whalers. Some version of this word is now used in most European languages for any boat built on the model of Inuit (Eskimo) skin boats. Long before that, however, boat names cognate with  “kayak” had already been found in most of the Turkish languages, being first attested by Kashgari in a book written for the caliph in Baghdad during the eleventh century AD (precluding the idea that Turks learned the word from the West.)

Related words are also found in some of the Mongol and Tungus languages of Central Asia and Siberia, as well as in Hungarian, Russian, and several of the other Finno-Ugric or Slavic languages of Eastern Europe. The distributions make it almost certain that the word was originally Turkish, and was borrowed by the other languages. Through Turkish, in the 1500’s the “caique” finally appeared in Italian as the name of a boat found on the Adriatic, and the name spread from there to the other European languages, finally reaching Sweden in the 1700’s. There the boat names  “caique” and “kayak” met – albeit as the names of boats of entirely different kinds. 

The fact that the Turks and the Inuit both had boat names pronounced something like “kayak” seems at first to be a pure coincidence of the type that cranks love and linguists dread. However, a good case can be made that the Inuit and the Turkish words were etymologically related, and that the word probably originated in Turkish.  

First, the Turks first appeared in history in Mongolia, far from present-day Turkey. Second, the kayak apparently originated with the Thule (Inuit) culture on the Bering strait (the closest point in North America to Asia), and starting about 800 A.D. spread with them from there via southern Alaska, reaching Greenland by about 1000 AD. The Inuit have always been capable of crossing the Bering strait, and in fact the Yupik still live on both sides of the strait. If the upshot of all this is that, if the Thule culture was able to transmit itself from the Bering strait more than three thousand miles to Greenland, it easily could have been in direct or indirect contact with the Turks about the same distance away in Mongolia. less than two thousand miles away. While all this does not prove that the Inuit word “kayak” is derived from the same source as the Turkish words “qayiq” (etc.), it certainly does show that this is by no means impossible or even terribly improbable.  

I thus conclude the word “kayak” circumnavigated the globe between 800 and 1700 AD, reaching Scandinavia from both directions at the end of that period.


The Norse apparently first reached Greenland not too long after the Thule Inuit did – though the older Dorset culture had been there long before the Thule arrived.  From Greenland, the Norse established a trade route for walrus and narwhale ivory  that reached as far as Sung dynasty China.

It is possible to reconstruct the Ivory Road with tolerable exactness.  Ships from Greenland went directly to Bergen without stopping at Iceland. The route to the eastern Baltic was routine. From near Lake Ladoga it was not far to the upper Volga at Timerevo near the present Jaroslav; from there it was a simple trip downstream to Bulghar, where the Rus had already been observed in the ninth century A.D. by Ibn Fadlan. The trip from Bulghar to Khwarizm (Khiva or Samarqand), possibly by boat on the Uzboy river / canal, was again routine, and at Khwarizm the Ivory Road joined the long-established Silk Road. (There was also a route via the Vistula and Dnieper from the Baltic to the Black Sea near the Crimea, whence the sea route would be taken to Trebizond and then to the Caspian sea.)

Given what I’ve said above about the Bering Strait, it doesn’t seem impossible to me that China also got New World luxury products from Alaska too, via intermediaries, but I have no evidence for that.


The Norse had already been in Constantinople (which they reached via the Dnieper – Black Sea route) for centuries by the time they reached Greenland. Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway, had been a leader of the Varangian Guard there, and was important enough to be named in one of the Byzantine chronicles. In 1066 Hardrada invaded England, hoping to re-establish the kingdom of Knut (Canute), but he was defeated and killed at Stamford bridge by the English king, Harold Godwinson. (The Norse were killed in a surprise attack, and we might suspect that they were drunk, just as were Grendel’s victims in Beowulf). At Hastings immediately afterwards, King Harold was defeated by the invading William of Normandy, who thus became “William the Conqueror”. This ended Anglo-Saxon rule of England (though William, like Harald Hardrada and Harold Godwinson, was ultimately of Norse descent anyway).

About this same time, other Norman raiders established a kingdom in Sicily, and not too long after this purely-secular conquest, the Crusades began. In 1202 Venetian treachery diverted the Fourth Crusade from Jerusalem to the Christian Byzantine Empire, which was conquered and divided  into Latin (or Frankish) kingdoms. But after a century and a half, the Varangian Guard in which Harald Hardrada served was still in existence, and it still recruited mostly among Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians. Most of the Varangians died defending the Byzantine Emperor, but the few who survived were recognized as distant relatives by the Normans and returned to their home, thus, rather involuntarily, completing their circumnavigation of Europe.


The kayak in Turkish, Swedish, etc.:

Sinor, Denis, “On Water-transport in Central Asia”, in Inner Asia and its Contacts with Medieval Europe, IV, Variorum, 1977. (pp. 163-168).


“Kayak” in English by 1757: though the old-edition OED seems to say ~1660.)

Henry Yule speculates about the “kayak” vs. the “caique”, claiming that the Mediterranean caique is similiar to the Eskimo kayak: Hobson-Jobson, Wordsworth Reference reissue, 1996, p. 143 — originally published in 1886.

The Thule culture and the kayak:  

“The Thule Tradition in Alaska (c.700 BC-AD 1800). Includes all prehistoric Eskimo remains in Bering Strait after c. 700 BC, from northern Alaska coast after c. AD 800, from southern coasts after c. AD 1000, and from Canada and Greenland after c. AD 1000. …. Some appear in the archaeological [record?] for the first time (kayaks, umiaks, dog sleds, efficient toggling harpoons, harpoon line floats, harpoon mounted ice picks).

Laufer, Berthold, “Arabic and Chinese Trade in Walrus and Narwhale Ivory”, T’oung Pao, 2nd series, #14, 1913, pp. 315—370. 

Laufer, supplementary notes to the above

David Christian, A History of Russia, Central Asia, and Mongolia, Vol. I, Blackwell, 1998 (Ivory in Khwarizm in 985 AD: p. 320. Timerevo: map on p. 337.)

David Nicolle (Medieval Warfare Source Book, Vol. 2, Arms and Armour, 1996, p. 122) reports that the Uzboy water route between the Caspian and the Aral was open as late as the sixteenth century, and also reports that a boat called a “caique” is still in use on the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

Ibn Fadlan: “La relation de la voyage d’Ibn Fadlan chez les Bulgares de la Volga”, tr. Marius Canard, # XI in Miscellanea Orientalia, Variorum, 1973.

Walrus and narwhale ivory

The Kayak in North-Western Europe

The Aberdeen kayak

A Comparison between Eskimo-Aleut and Uralo-Altaic Demonstrative Elements, Numerals, and Other Related Semantic Problems ” by Rene Bonnerjea, International Journal of American Linguistics, Vol. 44, No. 1.(Jan., 1978),pp. 40-55.

Beads of European origin reached Alaska sometime a little before 1480