First Nations and Atlantic CanadaAn Evolving Landscape: 25,000 Years ago to PresentThe First PeoplesWhere 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).