Maritime Archaic Tradition
The Maritime Archaic tradition was named after the discovery of a
4,000-year-old site at Port au Choix in northwestern Newfoundland.
Its name derives from two words: "Archaic", which refers to an
ancient pre-agricultural, or hunting and gathering, way of life
found throughout eastern North America and "Maritime" for the
important role that the sea and its resources played in the lives
of Newfoundland and Labrador's first people. Today archaeologists
recognize two variants of the Maritime Archaic tradition called the
Northern and Southern branches.
The Northern branch
Northern branch people were the earlier of the two variants to arrive
in the province. They are descended from the earliest people along the
Labrador Straits and their maritime adaptation is obvious by about 7,500
years ago. Excavation of a burial mound at L'Anse Amour in southern
Labrador revealed a walrus tusk, fish bones, a true toggling harpoon,
an antler toggle or handle and other objects that indicate a reliance on
marine resources by this time. Both the mound and the harpoon are among
the oldest in the world.
Once established in southern Labrador, Maritime Archaic people continued
to spread northward until, by about 5,000 years ago they had reached Saglek
and Ramah Bays in far northern Labrador. In the latter area they discovered
the source of a distinctive stone called "Ramah chert", from which they
fashioned their chipped stone tools and weapons for the next 2,500 years.
A series of archaeological "complexes" dating between 7,500 and 3,500 years
ago indicates a long in situ evolution along most of the coast of Labrador.
Throughout this time, skillfully flaked stone spear points with narrow
blades and long, tapering stems for hafting were made from Ramah
chert. Other chipped stone tools include knives and scrapers, some of the
former of truly impressive proportions. Stone was ground and polished to
make axes, adzes and gouges for working wood. Polished slate lance points
were used to dispatch wounded sea mammals. Ulus, or half-moon shaped
knives, and knives of more familiar forms were used to prepare skins and dress
game. We can only imagine what objects were made from bone, antler, ivory wood,
skin, bark, and other organic materials. They must have included frames for
dwellings, harpoon and spear shafts, tailored clothing, bark and wood containers
and many others. Some authorities believe that the Maritime Archaic people may
have made large dugout boats in areas where wood was available or could be traded
for. Ornaments include cut mica, soapstone pendants, or plummets, and
large blades made from Ramah chert that must have served ceremonial, rather
than utilitarian, functions.
Although very few traces of food bone remain in the acid soils of Labrador,
those that have been recovered and the location of Maritime Archaic campsites
and villages all indicate a reliance on marine resources. Fish, seals, seabirds,
walrus, and perhaps even small whales were hunted regularly. Land mammals,
particularly caribou, seem also to have been important for food, antler,
bone and skins. At least one large seasonal village, at Nulliak in northern
Labrador, seems to have been established for communal caribou hunting. "Drive lanes" consisting of rows of piled rocks may have channeled migrating caribou
virtually into the hunters' campsite.
In suitable areas houses were made by excavating depressions into boulder
beaches. At some sites, where the retreating sea level left a series of
raised beaches, house forms can be seen to have evolved from single family
dwellings to communal dwellings consisting of a number of "rooms" arranged
in a linear fashion along the beach. These dwellings reached their peak at the
Nulliak site, where "longhouses" as long as 100m have been discovered.
About 4,000 years ago a new people - the Palaeo-Eskimos - arrived in northern
Labrador. As these strangers became more familiar with Labrador and continued
to expand southward, the Maritime Archaic people seem to disappear at the same
time. Although the two events could be coincidental, many archaeologists believe
that the Palaeo-Eskimos were more successful in competing for resources and the
best campsites. Whatever the cause, the Northern Branch Maritime Archaic people
disappear from the archaeological record not long after 3,500 years ago. If any
groups survived after that time, their whereabouts has escaped the intensive
archaeological research on the Labrador coast.
Maritime Archaic Occupation of Newfoundland and Labrador, ca. 5000-3500 Years BP.
This map shows important, present day archaeological sites.
From J. A. Tuck. "Prehistoric Archaeology in Atlantic Canada Since 1975." Canadian Journal of Archaeology No.6 (1982), p 203. Illustration by Tina Riche.
The Southern branch
The origins of the Southern Branch Maritime Archaic people are obscure.
Shortly before 6,000 years ago a new stone tool complex appears in southern
Labrador. The people who made these tools preferred locally-available cherts
and rhyolites to the quartz, quartzite and Ramah chert of the Northern branch
people. By about 5,000 or 4,500 years ago these people had become established
on the coast of southern Labrador and parts of the central coast. They made
spear points with broad blades and side-notches for hafting. Flaked knives,
scrapers and expedient tools were made from the same local materials. A few
sites have produced ground stone axes, adzes and gouges, as well as polished
slate spears and lances. Their house types are not known; only traces of stone
fireplaces, sometimes arranged in a row along ancient beach terraces, have
The Southern branch people were the first humans to colonize the Island of
Newfoundland. By at least 5,000 years ago they had established themselves on
the Northern Peninsula and within a millennium their campsites are to be found
virtually around the entire Newfoundland coastline.
The most instructive Maritime Archaic site yet excavated is that at Port au
Choix where the regular arrival of migrating harp seals each spring provided a
reliable and predictable food source. In 1968 a large site containing hundreds
of artifacts was excavated. In contrast to most other locations, the soil at
Port au Choix permits the preservation of organic material. Artifacts of bone,
ivory and antler provide some indication of the elaborate and sophisticated
technology of the Southern branch Maritime Archaic people. Toggling and barbed
harpoons, bird darts and fish spears of bone and antler, and a series of
polished bone and slate spear and lance points, all suggest a technology
perfectly suited to the Newfoundland environment. Scrapers and "beamers"
of caribou bone, bone awls and fine needles made from split bird bones were
used to prepare and sew hides into clothing. Stone gouges, axes and adzes, as
well as small chisels and knives made from beaver incisors, were used to fell
trees and convert the wood into products that we can only imagine.
Many ornaments and magical or religious objects were also found at Port au
Choix. The bills and feet of birds, teeth of bears, foxes, wolves and beaver,
pins and pendants carved to resemble birds, a bear and even a human form were
also recovered. Shell beads, pendants resembling swords and paddles,
crystals of quartz, calcite and amethyst and any number of unusually-shaped
stones may have served religious, as well as decorative, purposes. Many of
these objects relate to the sea, for example a carved stone killer whale, a
tooth from the same animal, and depictions of gulls, ducks, loons and the
now-extinct great auk. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that certain
individuals must have had some special symbolic relationships with these
birds and mammals.
In general it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Maritime
Archaic people were remarkably well adapted to life in Newfoundland - from
their technology and economy to their intellectual culture.
In central and southern Labrador this successful adaptation seems
to have persisted into the succeeding Intermediate Indian and Recent
Indian periods. Some archaeologists believe that the Southern branch
Maritime Archaic people may have been, in some way, the distant
ancestors of today's Innu. Despite the apparent success of the Southern
branch people in Labrador, and the apparently well adjusted nature of
their culture in Newfoundland, the residents of the Island of Newfoundland
disappear from the archaeological record about 3,000 years ago.
Archaeologists can cite no convincing influx of a new population at this
time, as was the case with the Palaeo-Eskimos in northern Labrador. For
the present the disappearance of the maritime Archaic people, and what
seems to be a complete absence of Indian people from Newfoundland between
3,000 and 2,000 years ago remains one of the most puzzling mysteries in the
Native history of the province.
© 1998, James A. Tuck