Research and Collections

Research and Collections

Glimpses of Atlantic Canada’s Past

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David L. Keenlyside

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

Originally published in the Revista de Arqueología Americana, no. 16, 1999.


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.


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.


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