Ingenious invention from thousands of years ago predated a staple used today

·4 min read

Inuit snow goggles from Alaska. Made from carved wood, 1880-1890 (top) and Caribou antler 1000-1800 (bottom) (Wikimedia Commons/Jaredzimmerman (WMF))

Springtime in the Arctic is beautiful. The sun once again breaks over the horizon, the long-awaited light dancing across snow and ice. It's a sight to behold.

It can also be, quite literally, blinding.

The high reflectivity of the light against a landscape of snow and ice can damage the cornea and cause what is colloquially known as "snow blindness." The condition is also known as photokeratitis, which is caused by too much ultraviolet light hitting the cornea -- the outer layer of an eye -- and essentially giving it a sunburn.

The damage isn't permanent, but it can be painful and can even cause a temporary loss of vision, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. So, thousands of years ago, the people who had to navigate this reflective terrain crafted what are perhaps the first sunglasses.

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"A long time ago, people used to go blind from the sun being bright, so they made their own glasses like that," Iñupiaq Elder Theresa Nanouk said at an Elder's discussion hosted by the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian in May 2001.

The discussion was centered around snow goggles, carefully crafted from materials like wood and ivory, to protect the vision of those who would go out to hunt.

The goggles fit across one's face, blocking out most light save for a small slit that runs horizontally across the center of the headwear, but the designs may differ.

"They have all kinds, all shapes," St. Lawrence Island Yupik Elder Estelle Oozevaseuk said in a separate discussion at the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian during May 2001. She added that some have visorlike additions above the eye slits to take into account the glare of the sun, and they could even help a bit in white-out conditions.

Yupik Elder Estelle Oozevaseuk, 86, sits by the heater in her home in the village of Gambell on the St. Lawrence Island in the Bearing Sea, in Alaska. (Photo by Ann Johansson/Corbis via Getty Images)

"My grandfather had several of those, but not as fancy," Inupiaq Elder Jacob Ahwinona said. "He used to wear them when I was a boy. He made them out of wood ... Whenever you go out hunting or when the sun is shining, you'd take those along. Especially the long daylight hours in the spring, they wear those. They won't get snowblind out there."

Indigenous peoples living near the Arctic, including parts of Alaska, Greenland and northern Canada, have protected their eyes with such snow goggles for thousands of years.

"They're ubiquitous. They're everywhere there's snow," Dr. Ann Fienup-Riordan told AccuWeather. A cultural anthropologist, Fienup-Riordan has worked with the Yup'ik people (Yupiit) and their elders to coordinate museum exhibitions. Over the last 20 years, she has worked with a non-profit in Alaska called The Calista Education and Culture, Inc., which documents traditional knowledge of the Yupiit in the Calista region in southwestern Alaska, including the snow goggles.

"They're the traditional sunglasses -- the traditional prescription sunglasses because they not only shield your vision from the glare, but they promote your vision as well," Fienup-Riordan said.

An Inuit wearing snow goggles. (Wikimedia Commons/Julian Idrobo)

During the early 2000s, Fienup-Riordan had been recovering from surgery to correct a detached retina in one eye. It had been healing, but she couldn't really see out of it. However, when she held the snow goggles up to her eyes, the scenery around her clarified.

"Snow goggles prevent one from squinting from the brightness, and they used them before sunglasses became available," Yu'pik Elder Phillip Moses was quoted in the "Yuungnaqpiallerput: The Way We Genuinely Live" Exhibit from 2007. "And those who had bad eyes used them when they rowed to make their eyesight better. It helped you see better."

The mechanics have been likened to that of a pinhole camera, refocusing the light and helping to sharpen and focus vision.

While the goggles have been swapped out for sunglasses, baseball caps and visors, photokeratitis remains a hazard. Iñupiaq Elder Oscar Koutchak shared at the Elders' discussion that he had once been unlucky enough to be injured in this way.

"I had to stay in the house for three days," he said. "It's painful."

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