Lecture Notes Week Two: Anthropology 3291

© 2006 Michael Deal

Peopling the Maritimes: The Setting


The earliest human inhabitants of the Maritime Province are known to the modern Mi'kmaq simply as the "Ancient Ones" (Saqiwe'k Lnu"k), but to archaeologists they are the Paleoindians. The Paleoindian period for the Northeast in general dates between approximately 10,800 and 10,050 years BP, and can divided into Early, Middle and Late subperiods based on the seriation of diagnostic projectile point styles (Newby et al. 2005:148-150). Bradley (2001) further identifies several regional phases, at least four of which are relevant to the Maritime provinces (see Vignette 3.1). Paleoindian artifacts have been found throughout Maine and Maritimes, including the Magdalen Islands. However, only a handful of sites have been excavated, including the Debert and Belmont sites in Nova Scotia (Davis 1991; MacDonald 1968), the Jones site on Prince Edward Island (Keenlyside 1985; MacCarthy 2003), and the Vail and Michaud sites in Maine (Gramly 1982; Spiess and Wilson 1987). In the Maritimes, Bonnischen and others (1991) report only 16 sites and isolated surface finds for the entire period: four in New Brunswick, six in Nova Scotia and six in Prince Edward Island. This has been filled out somewhat by more recent finds and studies of private collections. Many more sites are known from Maine and New England, which gives us a general model for interpreting the Paleoindian materials from the Maritimes. In fact, it is impossible to discuss the prehistory of the Maritimes without including adjacent areas of Quebec and Maine, known collectively as the Maritime Peninsula. Wright (1995:29) also uses the term "Debert/Vail complex" to refer to a shared cultural tradition centred in the Maritimes and northern New England.

The Setting

Prior to the arrival of humans, northeastern North America was almost completely covered by ice. At the time of glacial maximum, ca. 18,000 B.P., the only unglaciated portions of the Maritime Peninsula were offshore islands and peninsulas that are now part of the broad Continental Shelf, including Georges Bank and Sable Island (Pielou 1991:138-146). The Cape Breton Highlands, the Magdalan Islands and northeastern Prince Edward Island were probably part of a larger land mass that bordered the Goldthwait Sea, the ancestral Gulf of St. Lawrence. Such areas served as "refugia" for many hardy species of flora and fauna. For years, fishermen trawling the Georges Bank have pulled up specimens of prehistoric mammoth and mastodon teeth (Edwards and Emery 1997) . According to Pielou (1991:141), the vegetation of glacial Georges Bank probably consisted of a mixture of tundra, which attracted mammoths, and coniferous parkland and black spruce, which attracted mastodon. Refugia to the north would have been more thinly vegetated, with low shrubs and herbs covering glacial Sable Island. Large active animals, including wolves and caribou, could have moved freely among the refugia. The flora and fauna from these unglaciated areas would have migrated to the mainland as the glacial ice retreated and contributed to the modern flora and fauna of the region.

Around 13,000 B.P., the retreat of ice from the coast of Maine led to a "marine transgression" (Struiver and Borns 1975) and the formation of an extensive coastal bay. Subsequent crustal rebound reversed the transgression and by 12,000 B.P. the modern coast of Maine was formed. At about the same time, in the northern part of the Maritime Peninsula, salt water inundated the western end of the Goldthwait Sea to form the vast inland Champlain Sea. It covered over 20,000 square kilometer and spread westward nearly to Lake Ontario. This was a cold water sea inhabited by whales (bowheads, humpbacks, finbacks, belugas and harbour porpoises) and seals (ringed, harp, and bearded), and fish species such as tomcod and three-spined stickleback (Pielou 1991:217). It would last for 2,000 years, until crustal upwarping drained the salt water and formed the freshwater channel we know as the St. Lawrence River.
During the early Holocene, sea levels were up to 60 m. lower in some areas, and a broad plain linked Prince Edward Island with the mainland (Scott et al. 1987). Keenlyside (1983; 1991) refers to this landbridge as "Northumbria." To the northeast of Prince Edward Island, the Magdalen Plateau extended out to the Magdalen Islands and northeast New Brunswick to form the southern bank of the St. Lawrence.

The Early Paleoindian occupation of the Maritimes, and south to New England, roughly coincides with a cooling period known as the Younger Dryas stadial, which dates from 11,000 to 10,000 radiocarbon years BP (or 12,900 to 11, 600 cal yrs BP). The radiocarbon dates from the Debert site range from about 11,106 to 10,043 radiocarbon years BP (or 13,148 to11,736 cal yr BP; Bradley 2001). It is generally difficult to correlate paleoecological work with perceived trends in prehistory, yet Newby and others (2005) argue convincingly that climatic changes involved in the Younger Dryas resulted in changes in floral and faunal populations that directly impacted on human resource procurement strategies. They use comprehensive fossil pollen records for species that give the best indication of overall vegetation change to reconstruct vegetation patterns in the region at 1000 year intervals. Climatic conditions during the Younger Dryas coincided with large areas of tundra-like vegetation north of spruce woodlands. The spruce population in the Maritimes shifted southward, while sedges (open tundra vegetation) and remnant glaciers expanded (Newby et al. 2005:145-147). At the end of the period the tundra-like vegetation was replaced by widespread closed forests, including temperate conifer and deciduous populations. Their reconstruction also indicates that regional vegetation patterns during the Younger Dryas would have been suitable for long-distance migrating caribou herds, similar to the modern George River Herd of northern Quebec and Labrador. The mixed deciduous forests following the Younger Dryas were probably more suitable to solitary cervids like moose and deer (Newby et al. 2005:151).


There has been considerable speculation as to the timing and nature of Paleoindian colonization of the Maritime Peninsula. The movement of these early hunter/gatherers is generally linked to changing environmental conditions, the movement of caribou herds, and the availability of suitable lithics for stone tools. Gramly (1993:94) suggests that the Lamb site may have belonged to a pioneering group that established a migration route north and east of the Ohio River, and eventually on to northern Maine and the Maritimes. The existence of the Champlain Sea during the Younger Dryas period may have also greatly influenced human migration. Dincauze (2001:122) suggests that people travelling east along early Lake Ontario and the shores of the Champlain Sea may have been lured there by the biotic richness of adjacent woodlands, wetlands, and tundra. Besides caribou and beaver, summer-nesting waterfowl could have provided meat, eggs, and feathers, as well as access to bird hunting fur-bearers such as foxes, wolves, martins, weasels, fetids, and raptors (Dincause 2001:123). Bird hunting would have required some sort of netting technology. Loring (1980:21, 35) notes that several concentrations of Paleoindian sites are associated with the Champlain Sea shore, and suggests that this may represent frequent visits by small hunting parties, and possibly attracted to the rich marine biota of the Champlain Sea (i.e., seals, whales and possibly walrus).

Curran (1999:21) suggests that fluted point using peoples were probably drawn north in search of resources, rather than due to population pressures at home. Dena Dincauze has argued that some of the largest Paleoindian sites in the Northeast, including Debert, may have actually been marshalling areas, occupied by groups who had just entered a new territory and such sites became "focal places used for the gathering, arranging, and allocating of resources and information" (1996:10). She notes that previous interpretations included the use of these sites as camps and lookouts for intercepting migrating caribou herds (episodic reuse), seasonal hunting aggregation camps, macroband camps, or seasonal social aggregation camps (e.g., reunions for sharing information, mate selection, and exploitation of seasonal resources: Dincauze 1996:6-7). For example, MacDonald (1982:x) suggested that variations in fluted projectilve point styles indicated that the first inhabitants of the region formed several distinct macrobands, rather than an homogenous population. Dincauze (1996:8) lists several criteria that would apply to pioneer marshalling sites, including distance to other large sites, archaeological visibility (rarity), use of earliest fluted point style, evidence of only one or two lithic sources, distinct artifact clusters (features), richness of the artifact assemblage in each cluster, and stylistic conformity. Debert is certainly a strong candidate for a marshalling area under these criteria. In particular, if it were an aggregation site for smaller local bands, you would expect to see much more variability in lithic resources. However, the mathematical odds of discovering the first pioneer encampment in the region must be phenomenal. The paucity of large sites in the Maritimes may merely be a result of the submergence of other large sites and the small number of researchers working in the area. Marshalling may also have involved shorter expansions, in which case, Debert may be one of a number of such sites in the region.

The Early Paleoindians

The earliest human inhabitants of the Maritime Peninsula were part of a wider North American Paleoindian cultural manifestation, identified in the west with the Clovis cultural tradition. The great separation in time and unique environments makes it difficult to compare these people with modern native cultures. As Wright (1995:24) points out, a social system that could maintain a consistent technological tradition while colonizing such a vast area is difficult to imagine. People of the Northeastern Paleoindian tradition are generally depicted as mobile hunter-gatherers. They probably used at least two residential "base camps" (i.e., warm and cold season camps), logistical camps for a variety of subsistence tasks, and quarrying sites (Gramly and Funk 1990). Gramly (1982) suggests that some archaeological sites, like Bull Brook, Massachusetts, and Whipple, New Hampshire, may have been the warm and cold season camps for the same macroband. Paleoindian quarrying sites are rare, but they have been identified in areas around Munsungan Lake, Maine (Bonnichsen 1981), while a single-fluted projectile point was found at the quarry site on Ingonish Island, Cape Breton (Nash 1978).

Paleoindians of the region are generally portrayed as caribou hunters, although this is supported more by vegetation reconstructions than by actual faunal material. Caribou bones are only known from the Bull Brook site, Massachusetts, the Whipple site, New Hampshire, the Udora site, Ontario, and possibly Michaud, Maine (Spiess et al. 1985; Spiess and Wilson 1987; Storck and Spiess 1994). Supporting evidence from Debert comes from blood residues on scraping tools that have been tentatively identified as caribou (Keenlyside 1991:164), although blood residue analysis is still a controversial technique. Caribou may have been only available as a seasonal resource (Spiess et al. 1985). Bonnichsen and others (1991) suggest that a wide variety of habitats was available in Paleoindian times, and that Paleoindian subsistence patterns may have been quite diverse. So far, the only other fauna associated with these early sites are beaver, arctic fox, hare and unidentified species of mammal, fish, and bird. However, it is assumed that the Paleoindians also hunted harbour and grey seals, and possibly walrus (e.g., Keenlyside 1985a). Anadromous fish species, such as salmon and gaspereau, were also plentiful. Jackson (1987) suggests that the earliest Paleoindians of southern Ontario may have also hunted mastodonts. Mastodons and mammoths may have overlaped with Paleoindians on the Maritime Peninsula, but an association has yet to be demonstrated (Odale et al. 1987).

Recent ice-patch archaeology in the Yukon (Farnell et al. 2004; Hare et al. 2004) has prompted speculation that the remnant ice sheets on the Maritime Peninsula (Borns et al. 2004; Stea et al. 1998) during the Younger Dryas may have attracted both caribou and their human predators. For example, Pelletier and Robinson (2005) suggest that Early Paleoindians from Bull Brook may have travelled the 400 km to Munsungan Lake to obtain chert from local quarries, but also to take advantage of caribou at nearby ice-patches in summer. Debert is also conveniently situated between a remnant ice sheet and the presumed lithic source at Partridge Island (now underwater). As Hare and others point out (2004:261), ice may have also facilitated the storage of meat for early hunters.

There is very little evidence of plant use from Northeast Paleoindian sites, although plants must have been important to their survival, just as they are to historically known Arctic and Subarctic populations (e.g., Hawkes 1916:34-37; Porsild 1937). For the modern Inuit, it is through plants that the earth is imbued with life (Dritsas 1986:111). Ethnographic accounts indicated that plants served a variety of needs for modern populations, including food, medicine, fuel, and materials for sleeping mats (e.g., Dritsas 1986:62-70; Holtved 1967:143-144; Porsild 1937). Berry crops in particular are a critical resource across the Arctic and Subarctic (e.g., Hawkes 1916:34-36; Thornton 1999). Dent an Kaufman (1985:72, Table 5.2) report a varied floral assemblage from the Shawnee-Minisink site, Pennsylvania, including seeds from acalypha (Acalypha virginica), amaranth (Amarantus sp.), buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata L.), hackberry (Celtis sp.), blackberry (Rubus sp.), chenopod (Chenopodium sp.), hawthorn plum (Crataegus sp.), smartweed (Ploygonum sp.), winter cress (Barbarea orthoceras), and grape (Vitis sp.). Not surprisingly, they consider fruits to be the more important plants from the assemblage, since they are high in carbohydrate values (Dent and Kaufman 1985:73). Spiess and others (1995) collected a floral assemblage from the Hedden site, Maine, consisting primarily of charred wood, bark, pitch, seeds and conifer needles. Unfortunately, the assemblage cannot be conclusively tied to the Paleoindian cultural component, except for one grape pip. Wood charcoal samples were primarily spruce (Picea spp.) and pine (Pinus spp.), while other specimens included one fir needle (Abies balsamea [L.] Mill.), and seeds from brambles (Rubus spp.), bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), bristly sarsaparilla (Aralia hispida Vent.) and grape (Vitis sp.; Ash Siddal 1999:197). The only plant remains recovered from the Debert site were wood charcoal fragments collected for radiocarbon dating. Three of the fifteen samples submitted for species identification at the Forest Products Laboratory (USDA) were tentatively identified as spruce (Picea sp.), while the remainder were reported as softwoods (Stuckenrath 1966:76).

The diagnostic artifact of the Paleoindians is the fluted projectile point, although they undoubtedly had a variety of other tool forms made form stone, bone and wood. While preservation conditions in the Northeast are not kind to organic artifacts, bone and ivory artifacts (even some on mammoth bone) have been found at Paleoindian sites in western North America and Florida. Bradley (1996) reports that six basic forms have been identified, including double-bevelled bone tools, bone and ivory projectile points, a cylindrical ivory knapping billet/burnisher, a perforated bone rod (shaft straightener), an awl and a bone bead. The double-bevelled bone tools, which are the most common form, have been variously interpreted as foreshafts for spears, sled runner segments, or sections of ceremonial staffs (Bradley 1996; Dunbar et al. 1989; Gramly 1993:8; Lahren and Bonnichsen 1974). The foreshaft interpretation is now well-entrenched in the literature (e.g., Wright 1995).

Late Paleoindians

The latter part of the Paleoindian period (c. 10,000 to 8,000 B.P.) is characterized by the use of unfluted or smaller fluted projectile points. The Paleoindians appear to have became more restricted in their movements at this time, possibly due to the degeneration of the spruce forest environment through the spread of pine. Remnant stands of spruce along water margins may have drawn some macrobands to more coastal areas. Late Paleoindian hunters following the St. Lawrence drainage to the Gulf would have encountered winter herds of harp seal (Loring 1980:35). Keenlyside (1985) suggests that the Paleoindians living along the eastern coast of the Maritime Peninsula and the lower St. Lawrence River may have had a marine adaptation focused on peak seasonal occurrences of seal and walrus. He refers to this as a "Paleomarine Adaptation" (c. 9,500 to 9,000 B.P.). This may account for the scaled down version of the fluted projectile point that has been recovered at several locations in the area. The 20 small fluted eared points associated with the Jones site, Prince Edward Island, were made from Ingonish Island chert (see Bonnichsen et al. 1991:14-15). The Jones site assemblage also included a barbed fluted point. Keenlyside (1985) also links the late Paleoindian marine adaptation to the Maritime Archaic cultural pattern that developed later in the same area. Unfluted Clovis-like and Plano-like projectile points have been recovered from various locations in the Gaspé, Southwestern New Brunswick, Central Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island and Alamoosook Lake, Maine. These artifacts may reflect a more riverine and lacustrine adaptation for the inhabitants of the western portion of the Maritime Peninsula.


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