Introduction

An inukshuk is an invaluable guide and a beacon of hope to travellers in harsh tundra conditions. The name (plural - inuksuit) means 'likeness of a person'.

While there is evidence they have been built the world over, the remaining examples are found in Arctic Canada - probably partly because the Inuit tradition forbids their destruction. This is a wholly reasonable stance when you consider how important and useful they can be to the lives of people living in such inhospitable potentially dangerous conditions.

Form

An inukshuk can be anything from a single round stone to an elaborate figure created by balancing many large rocks on top of each other. They are always free-standing, and each stone relies on all those below it to stay up. Unlike such rock constructions as Stonehenge, there is no mystery as to how the stones arrived in the location - they were invariably found lying around the area, rather than being transported any great distances.

The more complex figures - possibly introduced around the 19th century - can have legs and arms clearly built in to the shape. They sometimes have simulated hair made from heather plants.

Due to the cultural ties with Canada, the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 have chosen a multicoloured inukshuk as their logo. It is in the classic human form with outstretched arms.

Function

Inuksuit are almost exclusively used for navigation and waypointing. They would be built to mark safe passages through difficult terrain, or navigable channels in rivers. In the arctic wastes of Canada, there are vast plains with no natural landmarks. In these areas, the figures will have arms or legs pointing the way to safe places or useful resources. If found close to lakes, there will often be a good spot for fishing at the same distance from the shore as the inukshuk is on the land side.

There is no real code as to what each type of example means, but as all the examples show, a lost traveller would find any example heartening as it would show a human presence in the area, and possibly guide them to a settlement or at least a source of food.

Non-navigation

Other examples of Inukshuk not used for navigation include those used in Caribou hunting. They would be built in the more complex human forms along the migration paths of the animals. As well as helping with location of the herd, the hunters hoped that the shapes would spook the Caribou into running towards them.

Inuksuit as memorials have also been found - built in honour of people both living and dead.


Sources:
http://www.sulis.net/inukshuk.htm
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/index.cfm?PgNm=ArchivedFeatures&Params=A29
Pseudo_Intellectual for the heads-up on the Vancouver 2010 logo.