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Glimpses of Atlantic Canada’s Past – Page 2

– Page 2 –

First Nations and Atlantic Canada
An Evolving Landscape: 25,000 Years ago to Present
The First Peoples
Where did these First People go?

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 orWolastoqiyik (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 ÃŽles 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).

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.

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 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 ÃŽle 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 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).

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.

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”).

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.


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