Canada's only major Arctic petroglyph site -- a 1,500-year-old gallery of mysterious faces carved into a soapstone ridge on a tiny island off of Quebec's northern coast -- has been ransacked by vandals in what the region's top archeologist suspects was a religiously motivated attack by devout Christians from a nearby Inuit community.
For years, heritage advocates have sought special protection for the ancient etchings at Qajartalik Island, located about one hour by boat from the 500-resident village of Kangiqsujuaq. Experts believe they were created by the extinct Dorset culture, an artistically advanced civilization that occupied much of the eastern Arctic before they were killed or driven away by the Thule ancestors of modern Inuit.
More than 170 mask-like images, animal shapes and other symbols have been recorded on the island since the 1960s. Studies suggest Qajartalik was a sacred place, used for Dorset spiritual ceremonies and coming-of-age rituals.
But the site has been dubbed "the Island of the Stone Devils" because some of the faces -- possibly depicting a Dorset shaman in religious costume -- appear to be adorned with horns. In the past, crosses have been scratched on the "pagan" petroglyphs and some area residents have told researchers they believe the site is infested with evil spirits.
Long-running negotiations between Nunavut, Quebec and the federal government over the ownership of the Hudson Strait islands has delayed for a decade plans to protect the cultural treasure, which Arctic scholars have touted as a natural candidate to become a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Two ancient African rock art sites achieved that status earlier this summer, and Canada recently short-listed Alberta's Writing-on-Stone petroglyphs for a UNESCO designation.
Now, dreams of global renown for Qajartalik may be dashed after a visit to the island last month by Quebec cultural officials revealed extensive damage to the prehistoric drawings, including deep gouges across many of the faces.
"This is a world-class site," a despondent Robert Frechette, director of the nearby Pingualuit provincial park in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec, told CanWest News Service on Friday.
"I first visited the island 12 years ago and I can see that every time it's deteriorated," he said, describing how tourist looting and natural erosion of the site's soft soapstone first prompted preservation proposals in the 1990s.
"But this time I was quite amazed. Someone has taken some parts of the rock away. There's graffiti. And someone has been carving with an axe or something sharp in the grooves of the faces. It's pretty bad."
Daniel Gendron, chief archeologist with the Inukjuak-based Avataq Cultural Institute, the key promoter of indigenous history and identity in Nunavik, said the latest vandalism at Qajartalik follows the pattern of previous attacks by members of what he called "a very strong movement" of conservative Christians in Kangiqsujuaq and several other Inuit communities in northern Quebec.
Kangiqsujuaq's mayor, Mary Pilurtuut, said she hadn't been informed of fresh damage at the site and doubted "something religious" would have been involved.
"Recently, it's not the case," she said, suggesting that most of the deterioration at the site has been "caused by nature."
But Gendron recalls travelling to the Qajartalik with a local hunter who "refused to set foot on the island" for fear of disturbing its spirits. Some Inuit remain convinced that "it's the devil" who controls Qajartalik, Gendron said.
Federal, provincial and territorial governments, he added, "have refused to do anything about this site" before the jurisdiction of offshore islands is settled, possibly by 2007.
"Now, it may be too late."