Beothuk Culture

Beothuk material culture consists of the physical things left behind by these people including their tools, weapons and features i.e., the non-movable artifacts of a culture, such as the remains of houses, pits, fireplaces, and the like.

A Beothuk Wigwam
A Beothuk Wigwam
Reproduced by permission of the Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation - Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. Artwork by David Preston Smith.

Working with Iron

Beothuk material culture developed out of the preceding Little Passage complex, which is to say that very early Beothuk culture is just Little Passage culture with the addition of European materials. Beothuk culture changed considerably over time as a result of those new materials. For example, when Europeans first arrived in this part of the world, the Beothuk made stone points to tip their arrows, spears and harpoons as well as stone knives and stone hide scrapers. Gradually, however, the Beothuk replaced these stone tools and weapons with iron.

It is easy to see why the Beothuk made this choice. The relatively soft wrought iron of the early modern period could be cold-worked without the necessity of a forge. As well, while stone tools can be made quite sharp, they are more difficult to re-sharpen than iron edged objects. Also, stone has a tendency to shatter when it strikes a hard surface, while iron merely bends and can be easily bent back into shape. The source for most Beothuk iron, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries, was seasonally-abandoned European fishing premises. When migratory fishermen from Spain, Portugal, France and England went back home in the fall, they left behind wharfs, flakes, stages, and the debris of an extensive cod fishery. Nails were used in the construction of many of the structures of such a fishery and they were ideal objects to rework into projectile points. Beothuk sites such as Boyd's Cove in Notre Dame Bay, contain hundreds of nails, many of them re-worked into arrowheads, lance points and hide scrapers. The Beothuk also picked up lost fish hooks and turned them into awls, as well as broken pieces of knives, saws, files, and other objects which, although damaged, could still be put to good use.

By the end of the 17th century, those Beothuk groups who had access to European shore premises had largely replaced their stone technology--except for what are probably children's arrowpoints. Boyd's Cove, for example, has produced dozens of very tiny (10-20 mm) arrowheads which are almost certainly meant for children. Certainly, they could not be hafted to the meter-long arrow shafts used by Beothuk adults.

A Beothuk Birch Bark Canoe
A Beothuk Birch Bark Canoe
The high sides and bow and stern of the vessel may have made it more stable in rough water.
Reproduced by permission of the Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation - Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. Artwork by David Preston Smith.

Superior Beothuk Technology

To be sure, the Beothuk retained many elements of their traditional material culture--much of which was superior to comparable European technology. For example, the Beothuk built beautiful, light-weight, easily reparable birch bark canoes, some of which were capable of making long sea trips. The Beothuk also continued to make light, strong, birch-bark containers for food and water.

A Beothuk Birch-Bark Container Covered with Red Ochre
A Beothuk Birch-Bark Container Covered with Red Ochre
Courtesy of the Mary March Museum, Grand Falls, NL.

For clothing, the Beothuk employed caribou skins which were very warm without being heavy. Sinews from along the backbones of caribou were employed as thread, resulting in a material as strong as fish line.

Beothuk Housing

A Beothuk Conical Wigwam
A Beothuk Conical Wigwam
After digging a shallow depression in the ground, a framework of poles would have been erected and then covered with sheets of birch bark. Spruce boughs might have been placed around the perimeter for extra insulation. The excavated earth would then have been mounded around the outside edge of the wigwam.
Reproduced by permission of the Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation - Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. Artwork by David Preston Smith.

Some forms of Beothuk housing, on the other hand, appear to have changed considerably over time. What little evidence we have for Little Passage housing suggests that they built temporary, cone-shaped structures by placing bark or hides over a framework of light poles--somewhat like a smaller version of a Plains Indian tipi. However, by the 17th century Beothuk groups were building more substantial structures. Many Beothuk sites show a variety of these more substantial houses and they may indicate that the Beothuk were able to remain in one place for longer than had been the case in the precontact period. (Iron weapons, for example, would likely have resulted in a higher kill rate and more food which could be stored.)

A Beothuk Wigwam
A Beothuk Wigwam Reconstruction
This is a possible reconstruction, based on archaeological evidence, of how a Beothuk wigwam might have been constructed.
Reproduced by permission of the Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation - Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. Artwork by David Preston Smith

A common form of this more substantial house was multi-sided, or “sub-circular” in shape, often about 6-7 metres in diameter. Such a house was built by first excavating a shallow depression in the ground, and working short poles, perhaps a meter or so in length, into the ground. Other poles, sometimes called “stringers”, were then tied to the tops of the posts, and from these stringers, rafters extended inward to form the supports for the roof. Birch bark was used for the roof and as siding for the walls, and the excavated earth was piled around the perimeter of the structure. Another form consisted simply of the old tipi-style conical wigwam set in an excavated depression and with earth heaped around the walls. In the historic period, this type of wigwam was sometimes covered with a European sail rather than bark or skin.

The Beothuk also built a special sort of house that resembles the shaputuan constructed by the Innu of Quebec-Labrador. These houses were oval in shape, and at Boyd's Cove were 9-10 metres in length and 4-5 metres wide. One of the excavated houses at Boyd's Cove revealed a long hearth running down the centre of the house. This hearth was filled with tiny particles of burned bone and it suggests that this house was the scene of repeated feasts, probably similar to the mokoshan feast still carried on by the Innu. For a mokoshan, caribou leg bones are ground up into a kind of bone mash which is then boiled. As the bone marrow and collagen (a protein substance) rises to the surface of the water, it is skimmed off, pressed into cakes and eaten. Great care was taken to prevent spilling anything on the ground. This feast was held to honour the master of the caribou--the spirit who directed the movements of the animal herds and allowed them to be caught by human hunters. These long hearths, filled with bone mash, have now been found at a number of Beothuk and Little Passage sites and they afford us a rare glimpse into the spiritual life of the Beothuk.

Land and Sea Resources

The caribou, whose spirit was honoured by the mokoshan was one of the most significant animals hunted by the Beothuk. They were most easily killed during their fall migrations when they moved from their summer territories to their winter feeding grounds. We know that some Beothuk groups maintained "deer fences"-- long lines of poles with fluttery scraps of skin or cloth) attached to them. These drive lines funnelled the animals into the water where they were more vulnerable than on land. Caribou were, by far, the most important land animal for the Beothuk, but we know from analysis of the animal bones left behind at Beothuk sites, that they also hunted beaver as well as animals such as marten and otter for their furs.

The resources of the sea, as well as the land, were essential to the Beothuk. Harp seals and harbour seals were regularly hunted, as were a variety of sea birds. The coastal waters also furnished clams, mussels, lobsters, and a wide range of inshore fish. Most of these species, as well as the land animals, were not available at all times of the year. This meant that the Beothuk had to time their movements in order to take advantage of these animals. It is sometimes mistakenly thought that hunter-gatherers "wandered" about the landscape looking for food. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Hunter-gatherers in Newfoundland had to be at specific outer islands and headlands in late winter/early spring to hunt harp seals, for example, at a certain stream for two weeks in May to catch smelt, at a major salmon river for a salmon run, and so forth. Visits to quarries to acquire the stone from which to make their tools also had to be fitted into the seasonal round.

Society, Politics, and Religion

In all societies, decisions about movements within such a seasonal round are made within some sort of political and social organization. For the Beothuk, their social and political life was shaped by the fact that they were organized in bands. Subarctic hunter-gatherer bands like those of the Beothuk generally ranged from about 35 to 50 or so individuals--7 to 10 families. Although such bands had leaders, often a highly skilled hunter or a person known for his or her wisdom, leadership was usually achieved by bringing about a consensus on issues. Band societies tend to be quite egalitarian, meaning that status or respect had to be earned rather than inherited.

We know relatively little for certain about Beothuk religious beliefs. Accounts of Beothuk religion that date from the 19th century are suspect in that they often seem to include elements that are clearly Christian and European in origin. The previously-mentioned mokoshan feast is typical of subarctic hunters in eastern Canada, such as the Innu, and is quite likely that the Beothuk shared other elements of this sort of world-view. For example, it is almost certain that the Beothuk did not make a distinction, as we do, between religious and ordinary behaviour. While the western world today often relegates religion to a short period spent in church, for the Beothuk, hunting would have been a spiritual activity--carried out in a manner which would be respectful toward the spirit of the animal.

In the 19th century a number of Beothuk graves were investigated by local people and others, and as a result we know that it was common for Beothuk graves to be furnished with a variety of objects such as bows, arrows, knives, etc. This suggests that the Beothuk religion included a belief in an afterlife where they would need the same tools and weapons that they used here.

That Beothuk religion, as we have seen, shares some elements in common with that of the Innu. Another link may be the language of the two peoples. Memorial University Professor John Hewson has analyzed the scraps of Beothuk vocabulary collected by 18th and 19th-century observers and found that it belongs to the Algonkian family of North American Native languages. The Mi'kmaq speak a language belonging to eastern Algonkian, and the Cree and Innu speak variants of central Algonkian. Hewson has suggested that the Beothuk language may be related to central Algonkian, another indication of the relationship between the Innu and the Beothuk.

This, then, is an outline of Beothuk culture. A point to be stressed here is that the Beothuk did not follow a way of life "unchanged for centuries" as one so often hears in the popular media. No Native culture was unchanged for centuries--this is a very static view of Native culture which is at bottom racist. Archaeology has shown that all Native cultures demonstrate a record of innovation and adaption to various kinds of change--new people, changes in climate, new ideas--all required innovative responses, and in this regard Native people shared a common characteristic with all humanity.

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