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Glimpses of Atlantic Canada’s Past – Page 1

GLIMPSES OF ATLANTIC CANADA’S PAST

David L. Keenlyside

Curator, Atlantic Provinces Archaeology
Archaeological Survey of Canada
Canadian Museum of Civilization


Abstract


Atlantic Canada has been home to native populations for at least 11,000 years. This paper traces some of the more significant human events and changing technologies as seen through the archaeological and geological record. Atlantic Canada was never a densely populated region, however it did support significant populations who were well adapted to the seasonal shifts in availability of resources from the land, its rivers and the sea. From the earliest Palaeo-Indian period, Atlantic Canada was not a region which developed in cultural isolation. Although there is regional specificity to varying degrees, whether it be stone, ceramic or bone industries, technological traditions often exhibit relationships to broader cultural traditions of Eastern North America.

 

Introduction


Our knowledge of the distant past is a construct based upon various related disciplines including archaeology, natural sciences, historic written and oral accounts. The archaeologist, in piecing together the events of the past and their context for hundreds of past generations, must draw from all of these avenues of information. Although the past rarely leaves more than material remains, usually found as lost or broken bits and pieces of once vibrant cultures, it is the people, their livelihoods and the social and physical settings that we attempt to recreate. As such, the archaeologist’s challenge is to present the most credible hypotheses, supported by various lines of evidence, of what transpired at a given time and place in the past.

For this brief study, only a glimpse of our understanding of the prehistoric past of Canada’s Maritimes is presented – highlights which hopefully will spark the curiosity and interest of the reader to explore further into the archaeological literature.

 

Historical Overview


Canada’s Maritimes has been studied by archaeologists for nearly a century and in fact, was the subject of some of the earliest archaeological work in Canada. The fieldwork of W. J. Wintemberg from the then, National Museum of Canada, at shell midden sites along Nova Scotia’s north and south shores in 1913 and 1914, remains an important foundation work documenting late prehistoric coastal peoples. (H.I. Smith and W.J.Wintemberg 1929)

Ironically, almost fifty years elapsed before the first major survey and inventory of archaeological sites was conducted of the three Maritime provinces. This research was undertaken by R. Pearson, for the National Museum of Canada, in the early 1960’s. This pivotal work served to identify many of the more significant populated areas prehistorically, and recorded many sites which were to soon disappear through erosion, hydroelectric development and other human and natural destructive forces. Pearson’s extensive research, although unpublished, was very important in identifying many private holdings of archaeological material, offering a first ‘real’ glimpse of the extent and diversity of Maritimes’ precontact cultures. In Nova Scotia, less rigorous, but nevertheless important early contributionsfrom an educational perspective, was by biologist J. Erskine, who undertook archaeological fieldwork from the 1940’s to the 1960’s (Erskine 1960; 1969).

Canadian archaeology really began to change in the mid-1960’s and 1970’s with new programmes being instituted in the country’s various provinces. The first provincial Archaeologist in Canada of this era, was Dr. C.J. Turnbull in New Brunswick in 1970. Soon after, similar programmes were initiated in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. At the same time, growing Federal programmes in archaeology by the National Museum of Canada and Parks Canada, and universities in all of the three Maritime Provinces have each contributed to our current knowledge of Maritimes prehistory.

 


Glimpses of Atlantic Canada’s Past – Page 2

First Nations and Atlantic Canada


Although the archaeological realm generally rests in the more distant past, the impression must not be given that these ancient peoples have simply vanished. Regardless of their particular cultural makeup in the past, today’s First Nations do represent decendant populations from our archaeological constructs. Compared to regions such as the West Coast of Canada or the southern Great Lakes, population levels of the Maritimes were probably never very high. Estimates place the number of Mi’kmaq and Maliseet at the time of European contact between 10,000 and 35,000 individuals. The first census during the 17th century estimates Mi’kmaq at 5000, Maliseet at 1500 (Bock 1978). The effects of more than 500 years of European contact has probably resulted in a loss of 50-75 % of these numbers, however some scholars estimate this loss as high as 90%. Today, there are approximately 40,000 on and off-reserve Mi’kmaq in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. The Maliseet or Wolastoqiyik (People of the beautiful river) number appproximately 12,000 people, and are resident mainly in New Brunswick and adjacent Maine, living primarily in communities along the St. John River.

An Evolving Landscape: 25,000 Years ago to Present


The story of the earliest people who inhabited the Maritimes must first be understood within the context of an ancient landscape which characterized Eastern Canada. The past twenty-five millennia in Atlantic Canada have witnessed dramatic changes in the land and sea. What we see as Atlantic Canada today is very different from how it appeared to its first inhabitants at the end of the last Ice Age.

Atlantic Canada was subjected to the effects of the last major glacial advance, the Wisconsinan glaciation, which began its southward advance from north-central Canada about 25,000 years ago. At its glacial maximum, about 18,000 years ago, virtually all of Atlantic Canada, with the possible exception of eastern Prince Edward Island and a few isolated higher elevation highland areas, was covered by a thick sheet of glacial ice. In places, such as interior New Brunswick, this massive ice sheet was several kilometers thick. The effects of this glacial advance created a very different Atlantic Canada – an Atlantic Canada largely devoid of vegetation, land mammals and most significantly, people. The resulting loss of water in the oceans, then tied up in massive ice sheets, and combined with the huge weight of ice, lowered ocean levels worldwide and depressed coastal land masses (Grant 1989).

As the ice masses began to melt at the end of the Wisconsinan glaciation about 15,000 years ago, land areas became ice-free and coastlines remained much lower than today – as much as 100 meters in some regions. This difference is most dramatically seen in today’s shallow waters of the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence which then, was exposed land . Recent geological evidence suggests that by 9,000 – 10,000 years ago, even the remote Les Îles de la Madeleine in the central part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence may have formed a contiguous part of the mainland

(Gareau, P., M. Lewis, J. Shaw, T. Quinlan, A. Sherin, and R. Macnab, 1998) (Figure 1).

A map of Atlantic Canada

Atlantic Canada map ca. 9500 B.P. from Gareau et al. 1998.

Literally thousands of square kilometers of once habitable land area are now underwater. Portions of the Grand Banks and Continental Shelf were also exposed land, supporting vegetation, animals and people. Prince Edward Island was then part of the mainland – joined by what we might call the original ‘fixed link’ – land connecting New Brunswick and Nova Scotia across Northumberland Strait. This ancient Maritimes landscape, I refer to as ‘Northumbria’ (Keenlyside 1984).

Ancient Northumbria was a landscape rich in fauna and flora which gradually evolved with changing climatic conditions over a period of at least 5000 thousand years. During the middle Holocene of 7000-5000 years ago, referred to as the Altithermal, temperatures were considerably warmer than today, paralleling climate now seen in the southeastern Atlantic States. We know from studies of marine shells which are very sensitive to water temperature changes that the ocean temperatures and currents along the northeastern Atlantic seabord have changed considerably since glacial times, especially along the Quebec/Labrador and Newfoundland coasts (Dyke, A. J. Dale, and R. McNeely 1996). Warmer ocean temperatures would likely have created an ocean ecosystem of saltwater mammal, fish and plant species characteristic of a more southerly Atlantic climate than that encontered today.

Chart showing sea level variation in Atlantic Canada.

Variations in Sea Level Changes across Atlantic Canada from Grant 1989.

With the melting of ice masses and the rebound of the coastal shelf, rising water levels gradually flooded shorelines. By about 5500 years ago, Northumbria was breached, forming what is now Northumberland Strait and the island we call Prince Edward Island. This process is still ongoing and parts of the southern Maritimes are receding into the sea at a rate of about 10cm per century. This submergence is not the case however, for all of Atlantic Canada. Along the south shore of Labrador and parts of Newfoundland, the land is rebounding and the shoreline is still emerging. Geological data indicates that much of the Quebec/Labrador south shore was still submerged until after 8000 years ago (Grant 1989) (Figure 2).

 

The First Peoples


The ancient landscape of Atlantic Canada was home to people who are the distant ancestors of today’s First Nations. We know from archaeological research in the Yukon that people were living in northwestern North America at least as early as 20,000 years. Given the growing archaeological evidence for early populations in South America, it is logical to assume that people were also living south of the glacial ice sheets at this early time. With the gradual global warming at the end of the Wisconsinan glaciation, by 11,000-12,000 years ago, people living south of the glaciers in eastern North America moved rapidly northward into the newly opened ice-free areas. The abundant animal and plant-rich ice margins characteristic of these peri-glacial environments would have been especially attractive to hunter-gatherers.

Map showing sites of first campsites in Atlantic Canada.

Map of Palaeo finds

Archaeological surveys in the Maritimes have identified campsites of these first inhabitants dating from at least 11,000 years ago (Figure 3). Much of this evidence comes from isolated finds of distinctive and typologically ancient stone implements (Bonnichsen, R., D. Keenlyside and K. Turnmire 1991) (Figure 4).

Probably the best known and most carefully documented of these early sites is the Debert site in central Nova Scotia (MacDonald 1967). Hearths from hunting camps of these early inhabitants are radiocarbon dated to approximately 11,000 years ago. From a hunting standpoint, this was a strategically important place. Seasonally occupied and re-occupied over many years and likey for several generations, Debert appears to have been a favorite place to intercept migrating herds of caribou, once abundant in the ancient, tundra-like landscape. It is highly probable that these people also depended on the sea for their sustenance and livelihood. Camps would have been seasonal and it is expected that at other times of the year, the resources of the sea and rivers were also exploited.

The archaeological tool assemblage from Debert is exclusively stone – with the exception of small amounts of ash and charcoal – all that has been preserved after more than 500 generations. Included is a wide range of specialized cutting, scraping and perforating implements for use on bone, antler and wood. Clearly, judging from the sophistication of the tool assemblage, they would have had the technology to exploit the wide range of available terrestrial, marine and riverine subsistence and material resources.

Sea mammals such as walrus and the various seal species would have been easy prey for these skilled hunters. One of the most distinctive elements of these people’s tool kit was their triangular bladed spearpoints, often thinned with a prominent ‘flute’ or channel flake – facilitating hafting or fastening of the blade to a handle or spear shaft. This style of blade is considered a trademark of Palaeo-Indian cultures from Alaska to South America. Strangely, this apparent useful hafting feature is rarely seen in stone knapped assemblages in the many millennia that followed.

Where did these First People go?


Since the discovery of Debert, archaeologists have long puzzled over the fate of these early Palaeo-Indians in the Maritimes and more generally across the Northeast. The few Palaeo sites found in northeastern North America tend to be single component in nature; that is an occupation or occupations representing the same cultural group. From a Maritimes perspective, what I believe are clues to the whereabouts of their descendants come from three areas: the north coast of Prince Edward Island; Les Île de la Madeleine in the Gulf of St. Lawrence; and the south coast of Labrador – of course, at a time when the shape of Atlantic Canada was dramatically different.

Palaeo-Indian spearheads.

Palaeo-Indian points from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island

On the northeastern coast of Prince Edward Island, at the Jones Site on St. Peters Bay, archaeologists uncovered an early campsite believed to be 9000-10,000 years old (Keenlyside 1991). The distinctive style of some of the stone implements associated with the earliest occupation suggests a possible relationship, at least through their tool-types, with the earlier Debert peoples (Figure 5). Were these a descendent population now living on Northumbria? Stylistically, the Jones site triangular-shaped stone spearheads are similar to harpoon heads used historically by native groups on the west coast of North America for spearing sea mammals. Virtually identical styled spear tips have been found on sites on Les Ile de la Madeleine (McCaffrey 1986). Although these sites have not been radiocarbon dated, they are believed to be at least 9000 years old.

Further to the north, along the southern Labrador coast and adjacent coastal Quebec, similar finds, at what are believed to be sea mammal hunting sites, have been dated back to 8000-9000 years ago (McGhee and Tuck 1975).

Two different size spearheads.

Quaco Head and St. Peters points

One of the most spectacular early archaeological finds from Atlantic Canada comes from the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence close to the Quebec-Labrador border at L’Anse Amour, Labrador (McGhee 1976). A circular mound covered with large flagstones, roughly 9 meters in diameter and 60 cm in height, was discovered in the 1970’s by archaeologists J. Tuck and R. McGhee (Figure 6). A radiocarbon date of 7500 years ago makes this as one of the earliest burial mounds discovered in the New World. Archaeological excavations revealed the skeleton of a boy lying about 1.5 meters below the surface at the heart of the mound. Among the associated artifacts were stone and bone spearheads, an ivory toggling harpoon head and hand toggle; ceremonial paint objects and a bird-bone whistle. Lying near the boy’s head was an ivory walrus tusk – direct evidence for walrus hunting, but symbolically suggesting its importance to the people of L’Anse Amour.

Pile of rocks at L'Anse Amour, Labrador.

L’Anse Amour site, Labrador

Walrus, although only rarely found in Atlantic Canada today, were once abundant in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Prior to the 18th century, the southern range of the walrus extended into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and as far south as Massachusetts. We know from contemporary and historic accounts among the Inuit, the major importance of walrus as a source of oil, food and raw materials (bone, ivory, hides). Similarly, in the Maritimes, 17th century chroniclers such as Denys (1908) describe the importance of the walrus to the Mi’kmaq, however by the end of the 18th century most walrus had been exterpated from the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

It is highly probable and there is supporting evidence in the archaeological record, that a similar importance for the walrus was held by ancient peoples of Atlantic Canada. Walrus remains are recorded archaeologically from Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island. For example, at the 4000 year old Port au Choix site in along the west coast of Newfoundland, walrus ivory was used to craft adzes for woodworking. Also at L’Anse Amour, 7500 years ago, a walrus tusk was placed as a grave offering. Underwater finds of ancient tools in Atlantic Canada provide important, albeit indirect, evidence of early exploitation of these large marine mammals. Scallop drags off the coasts of Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have dredged from the ocean bottom distinctive stone knife implements, similar to the Arctic Inuit ‘ulu’ (translated as woman’s knife”).

Man holding an Ulu (woman's knife).

Ulu from Wolf Islands, New Brunswick

These curious semi-lunar shaped tools are made from ground slate and are known to date as early as 5000-7000 years ago from the Great Lakes to New England (Keenlyside 1984a) (Figure 7). Most of these ‘ulus’ were dredged from depths of 20-50 meters. It is likely that at this early time these areas would have still been underwater, although at a much shallower depth. The most likely explanation is that ancient sea mammal hunters, much like today’s Newfoundland ‘sealers’, were hunting and butchering walrus or seals on the offshore ice. All of the dredged examples were found in complete condition suggesting that they had been lost, eventually falling through the ice to the ocean bottom. Early chipped ulu forms first appear in the archaeological record about 7000 years ago along the Labrador coast. The highly polished slate forms such as we see from scallop drags are probably 5000-7000 years old. Although sea levels at this time would have been substantially lower than today, the dredged finds are predominantly in 20-40 meters depths – shallow offshore locales in most cases. How then did these ulus find their way to the ocean floor? It is possible that they were lost from boats, however a more probable explanation may lie in the hunting patterns of these ancient people. Walrus are known to haul out and spend much of their time at the edge of ice flows. Traditionally, this is where the Inuit hunt the walrus. Similarly, in Atlantic Canada walrus would have been hunted and butchered along the fringes of the ice flow. It is logical to assume that tools such as ‘ulu’ knives would be lost in the snow or through the ice and thus eventually fall to the ocean bottom.


Glimpses of Atlantic Canada’s Past – Page 3


Maritime Hunters


In the millennia that followed the Palaeo-Indian period, the archaeological evidence is sporadic. However, for the period 3500-4500 years, much has been preserved. This may simply reflect sampling in the archaeological record or perhaps selective preservation.

Several different shape and different size spearheads.

Twillingate, Newfoundland artifacts

Cemetery sites, in particular, have preserved a rich archaeological record for this period, known as the Maritime Archaic. This period seems to reflect a lifestyle emphasizing resources of the sea. Not only in their tools but also ceremonially, marine mammals appear to have taken on a special significance in the lifeways of these ancient people. Maritime Archaic sites have been identified from as far south as southern New England to as far north as northern Labrador. One such site lies along the north central coast of the western peninsula of Newfoundland at Port au Choix. This was a popular fishing and sea mammal hunting place for many thousands of years, for both the Maritime Archaic (4200-3700 years ago) (Tuck 1976) and later Palaeo-Eskimo Dorset (2500-1000 years ago) (Harp 1964) cultures. Excellent preservation conditions have preserved much of the often lost organic artifacts belonging to the Maritime Archaic people. A wide array of utilitarian and ceremonial objects of stone, antler, bone and ivory reveal an artistic wealth which quite often depict stylized animal life and waterfowl by the sea (Figure 8). These people possessed an elaborate fishing and sea mammal hunting tool kit to exploit the shore and offshore marine resources: eg: small stone effigies, symbolically representing killer whales suggest a special relationship to these large, aggressive sea mammals. These were a people well-adapted to the sea with the technology and knowledge for traversing great distances. Specialized heavy woodworking implements at this site and at other Maritime Archaic sites were probably used in the construction of dugout canoes.

Further evidence of the Maritime Archaic people are also found inland. On Grand Lake, in central New Brunswick, the Cow Point cemetery dates from 3800 to 4000 years ago (Figure 9) (Sanger 1973). Once again, as seen in Newfoundland sites, we see the ceremonial burial of utilitarian objects such as woodworking axes and gouges, fishing weights or plummets, but as well, specialized implements such as ornately decorated slate bayonets (see Figure 9 inset). Given their long slender shape and the relatively fragile nature of the material from which they were made, it is hard to imagine that these implements would have served a practical purpose. However, they illustrate the high level of craftsmanship and the precise decorative techniques they had achieved.

Decorations engraved on two stone bayonets.

Cow Point artifacts; incised decorations
on the two long slate bayonets (photo: D. Sanger, CMC)

Multiple stone artifacts, mainly pointy spearheads.

Cow Point artifacts(photo: D. Sanger, CMC)

The almost total absence of organic remains precludes our appreciation of what must have been an artistically rich culture. Of considerable interest however, were the remains of hollow enamel shells of several shark’s teeth – identified as a large Great White, Carcharodon carcharias at Cow Point. Historically, stories of shark attacks on canoes hint at the possibility of earlier encounters by native people. Perhaps, like the Killer Whale, the shark held special significance in the life of these people. One wonders if some of the sawtooth-like engravings on the slate bayonets are actually stylized shark’s teeth.

Burial Mounds and Trade Networks


About 2500 years ago, dramatic developments took place in the Maritime Provinces. The Maritimes were host to strange new visitors who brought with them an elaborate burial cult closely reminiscent of the Ohio Valley, Adena culture. At Red Bank on New Brunswick’s Southwest Miramichi River, the Augustine Mound was investigated by archaeologists in the early 1970’s (Figure 10) (Turnbull 1976). The mound was circular, ca. 11.5 meters in diameter , a meter high, and contained at least 11 features which included cremations, burials, red ochre and many associated artifacts including organic remains and literally thousands of native copper beads. The chemical presence of copper oxides from these beads acted to preserve organic materials such as basketry, woven fabric, hair fibres and birch bark.

A mound getting dug out.

Augustine Mound

Although many of the stone artifacts found were fashioned of local materials, numerous examples of exotic materials were also found: native copper appears to have come from Lake Superior sources; exotic cherts were obtained from distant sources in the mid-western U.S.; tubular pipes were fashioned of Ohio ‘fire-clay’. A number of the large exotic blades exhibit ‘travel scars’ – polished surfaces likely created as a result of being carried long distances in a pouch or bag.

Our understanding of the population dynamics at this time in prehistory is far from clear. Some archaeologists have suggested that these findings are part of a broad interaction network among many groups in the Northeast (Turnbull 1976). Wright (1998) has suggested a possible adoption of ‘Adena religion’ by some segments of Maritime culture. Given the amount of trade material at this and a number of other similar site assemblages across the Maritimes, I tend to favor an interpretation which involves the actual movement of a small group or groups of Adena culture peoples from the Great Lakes region to Atlantic Canada. The finding of mounds with very similar features and associated grave goods across the Northeast, above all else, indicates a relatively rapid spread of a complex set of inter-related ideas and materials associated with the burial of the dead. Radiocarbon dating places the ages of most of these sites in a short time-frame between 2300 and 2500 years ago, perhaps suggesting these events did not transpire over a period much longer than several generations.

The Arrival of a New Technology


Along with the many exotic items at Red Bank were fragments of a ceramic vessel. It is exotic in the sense that to this point in time, few examples of ceramics have been found in the archaeological record. Current archaeological ceramics research has identified a first ‘wave’ of ceramic manufacture sometime between 2700 and 2500 years ago. It is currently believed to be the time of introduction of ceramic technology into the Northeastern States and Maritimes region. Ceramic technology has much earlier roots in the New World, probably originating in Columbia or Ecuador between 5000 and 6000 years ago (Meggars 1997). The lengthy dated sequence from the southeastern United States indicates the presence of an early ceramic technology by 4500 years ago (Sassaman 1998). In eastern Canada, whether in the Maritimes or the Great Lakes region, ceramic technology seems to have arrived virtually simultaneously between 2500 and 3000 years ago. Through exchange mechanisms such trade and inter-marriage between neighbouring tribal groups, the knowledge of making ceramics spread up the Atlantic seaboard, following the coast to the Maritimes and inland via major river systems such as the Hudson, Connecticut and Susquehanna Rivers.

By 2000 years ago, ceramics are widely used and are found associated with habitation sites across all of the Maritime Provinces. Early types include thin walled, simple conical forms; many extensively decorated on their exterior surfaces with intricate linear impressions. Later forms also tend to be conical in shape, but they are thicker walled and exhibit different decorative elements with generally less surface decoration (Figure 11) (Keenlyside 1984b). Curiously, the skill level of the craftsperson, both in terms of decoration and fabrication, appears lower during the later periods.

It is difficult to establish what impact ceramics had on peoples’ material culture. The absence of organic preservation at almost all sites, does not allow a balanced view of the range of materials and tool types being used. Did ceramics replace birch bark? Since birchbark is found in later assemblages and also historically, it clearly was not. There were probably certain cooking or boiling functions where ceramics were preferred. Its durability in the fire would obviously be an asset. Pot boiling was traditionally done using a stone boiling technique where pre-heated stones were dropped into wood or skin containers. This may have changed with the introduction of pottery, but only to a limited degree. It is not believed that boiling involved suspending the ceramic container over a fire in the conventional sense. The absence of suspension holes and flat bottom vessels precluded this method. A significant advantage, however, would be that vessels could be pushed directly into or beside the hearth to heat or to hold a higher temperature than using birch bark. For portability, especially among seasonally mobile populations such as found historically in the Maritimes, birch bark would have a distinct advantage for its light weight and durability. Although ceramics are found at most late prehistoric Maritime sites, they occur in relatively small amounts. Unlike birchbark containers, ceramics were quickly replaced during the contact period by European copper and iron containers. So rapid and early was this change that there is no historical record documenting the use of ceramics among aboriginal peoples in the Maritimes.

Marine Estuary, Lagoon and Riverine Ecosystems


Traditionally, resources found in the ecologically rich coastal estuaries and rivers, for Atlantic Canada’s aboriginal peoples, were as important as those of the sea. The year-round pursuit of different seasonally available resources maximized food return to support populations. For exploiting marine resources, tidal estuaries in many ways offered the best of both worlds. Both salt and freshwater fish species and sea mammals are found in these ecosystems as well as abundant terrestrial fauna and waterfowl. Perhaps most importantly, they were easily accessible.

Ceramic bits and pieces.

Late ceramics

Ceramic bits and pieces.

Late ceramics

The tidal estuaries found along New Brunswick’s northeastern shore are still home to numerous Mi’kmaq communities and have been for thousands of years (Leavitt 1996). From Caraquet in the north to Kouchibouquac in the south, the eastern shore is characterized by numerous saltwater estuaries and associated barrier beach lagoon systems. Here, the tidal saltwater flows well inland meeting the outflow of freshwater streams. Anadramous fish species such as salmon, sturgeon, gaspereau or alewife, striped bass, and eel, seasonally move up the estuaries in large numbers. Species such as salmon spawn above the ‘head of tide’ and up the freshwater streams. Others, such as striped bass swim only as far as ‘head of tide’.

A man looking through the Tracadie prehistoric site.

Acadian/prehistoric site on the Tracadie River

Given the low topographic relief of much of coastal New Brunswick, head of tide may lie many kilometers inland. Ancient camps identified by archaeologists along the Tracadie estuary document thousands of years of fishing (Ibid). Even today, Acadian fisherman still fish many of these same localities (Figure 12). Archaeologists found a wide variety of stone tools related to woodworking. The knives were probably used in producing fishing-related implements and in the processing of fish. Heavier stone tools such as axes and adzes cut and trimmed the poles necessary for building wigwams, other structures and importantly the poles for fish weirs (Figure 13). Canoe parts and paddles would be roughed out with axes and finished with adzes and knives.

Another important estuary site is located at Red Bank, on the Southwest Miramichi. Located only a short distance from the previously mentioned Augustine Mound, the Oxbow site documents over 3000 years of continuous fishing by ancestors of today’s Mi’kmaq First Nation (Allen 1980). Surveys and excavation of archaeological sites in the Red Bank area formed part of an ongoing co-operative project between the New Brunswick Government and the Red Bank First Nation beginning in the 1970’s which continues to this day (Allen 1991). At a place still fished by the community, archaeologists excavated a deeply stratified encampment site, literally occupied over a hundred generations (Figure 14). Repeated seasonal occupations by fisherman left thousands of artifacts dating back over 3000 years. Distinctive implements found at the various levels of this site characterize the different cultural periods and traditions which eventually became defined as Micmac. Sites such as Oxbow were favorite spring and early summer camping locations. Salmon, smelt, and sturgeon were speared, netted or caught in weirs in great numbers. Filleted fish were hung on drying racks for preserving and eventual storage. Later in the season, runs of striped bass, sea trout, eel and shad were also important.

Twelve different spearheads.

Tracadie, New Brunswick artifacts

Fishing remains an integral part of the Mi’kmaq community life of the Red Bank First Nation. Co-operative programmes during the 1990’s with government and the private sector to manage the salmon fishery have been an important initiative to ensure stock survival and continued local use of the fishery. A recent film entitled “Metepenagiag: Village of Thirty Centuries”, co-produced by the Red Bank First Nation, vividly documents and describes the community’s traditional relationship with the Miramichi River, its long history and contemporary programmes in the management of salmon stocks (Red Bank First Nation 1996).

In south-central New Brunswick along the St. John River, head of tide is found above Fredericton, some 100 kilometers from the sea coast. In the Maliseet language, this place is known as Aukpaque (literally ‘head of tide’). This has been a traditional spring gathering place for many generations among the Maliseet or Wolastoqiyik (people of the beautiful river) and their ancestors.

Two people searching an archaeological site.

Tracadie, New Brunswick artifacts

Archaeological remains indicate this has been a major fishing place for at least several thousand years. This place had many natural attractions, notably, the seasonal spawning runs of salmon and striped bass. Fish would have been speared or netted from shore or from canoes. The striped bass which spawn only as far upriver as the head of tide, were particularly favored. Records document striped bass as large as 30 kg. in the St. John River.

Shell Middens


Shell middens found along the shores of the Maritime Provinces and New England underline the importance of shellfish as a protein-source in the pre-contact aboriginal diet.

In southern New Brunswick’s Passamaquoddy Bay, surveys have identified many shell midden sites, in particular, along the shores of the many bays and Islands which are characteristic the Bay (Sanger 1987). One such midden site is the Weir site located on the Bliss Islands (Figure 15) (Black 1992). This extensive shell midden was excavated in the late 1980’s and the archaeologist’s analysis tells us a lot about the importance of fishing and the collecting of marine shellfish to early aboriginal economies. The layers of soil and shell (stratigraphy) suggest repeated use of the area for at least the past 2000-2500 years.

Multiple people searching an archaeological site

Bliss Islands fish weir, Passamaquoddy Bay, New Brunswick
(photo: S. Finlay, Government of New Brunswick).

The archaeologist has analysized each layer of the deposit and determined how it was formed, either through a natural process or through various types of human activity. Among the discarded refuse in the midden were remains of terrrestrial (deer, beaver, muskrat) and marine fauna (seal), fish (cod and sturgeon), and many shellfish species of varying importance. Shellfish were collected seasonally, primarily during the spring to mid-summer period. Sea urchins and horse mussels occur in greatest abundance, but also represented were scallops, common mussels, whelks, limpets, periwinkles, saxicaves and barnacles.

Similar archaeological sites have been identified along Nova Scotia’s north shore. At Merigomish Harbour, archaeological fieldwork by W.J. Wintemberg identified similar island-based sites consisting of large deposits of shellfish remains (Figure 16). Species most sought after appear to have been quahogs, oysters and the common mussel. Of less importance but present are the hen clam, soft-shelled clam, horse mussel, moon shell, boat shell and spiral shell. Thousand year old artifacts excavated from these middens tell us about the types of activities and the technology used by ancestors of today’s Mi’kmaq peoples (Figure 17) (Smith and Wintemberg 1929).

Glimpses of Atlantic Canada’s Past – Page 4

Summary and Conclusion


Three men doing an archaeological dug out.

Wintemberg at Nova Scotia shell midden, (1913/1914)

In tracing the story of early peoples in the Maritimes, I have attempted to provide a brief glimpse of some archaeological highlights which illustrate the antiquity and diversity of Maritime peoples. Much of the archaeological record has been lost, to coastal submergence and the resulting erosion as well as to destructive human agencies. Nevertheless, the pattern which emerges illustrates the changing nature of cultural expression through time and space. People were generally mobile, seeking out the best nature had to offer.

Although the Maritimes is characterized by its own distinctive look, archaeologically speaking, it did not develop in isolation, even from its earliest roots 11,000 years ago. It is clear that there were extensive trade networks and considerable mobility of family groups seasonally, and over time. In some instances, such as the appearance of ‘mound builders’ across the Maritimes 2500 years ago, this may have involved actual migration of small populations over thousands of miles. Although the mention of mobility is often perceived as simply ‘wandering’, this was certainly not the case. People who depended on seasonal peaks and fluctuations, that is to say, seeking out the best nature had to offer, were by the very nature of this dependence, opportunistic and adaptable to changing conditions – their lives and their family’s lives depended on it.

Multiple stone and bone spearheads.

Merigomish Harbour, Nova Scotia artifacts

The Atlantic coastal and Maritimes ecosystem, as it has gradually evolved during the post-glacial Holocene, has offered a wide range of terrestrial and marine resources, some available only at seasonal peaks, few others on a year-round basis. Perhaps not generally appreciated is the important part sea mammals played in the aboriginal diet, in particular various seal species and the now, exterpated walrus in Atlantic Canada. Changing adaptations over the past several centuries have tended to change our perception of resource-use patterns of the more distant past.


Glimpses of Atlantic Canada’s Past – Page 5

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