Hunting Tools and Techniques; Food Preparation and Storage

As hunters, fishers and gatherers, the Beothuk moved with the seasons to exploit the most productive migratory animal species on the island, namely seal, salmon, and caribou. In April/May hunting parties pursued harp seal that passed on their migration along the coast; in July, families gathered at river mouths for the harvest of salmon, and during the remainder of the summer dispersed in small groups to fish, collect sea food, hunt sea birds and collect bird eggs. In fall, families came together again for the caribou drive on rivers and lakes where they remained close to the stored caribou meat for the winter. The Beothuk supplemented this staple with small fur bearers, lake fish, birds, berries and other plants. Before contact, their move with the seasons and their methods of preserving food stuff would have secured them a reliable subsistence.

Bow, Two Arrows with Iron Points, and Two Birchbark Quivers
Bow, Two Arrows with Iron Points, and Two Birchbark Quivers
The drawing was part of the title to John Cartwright's map of the Exploits River, 1773.

Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada/NMC 27.

Annual Caribou Drive

For their annual caribou drive the Beothuk built fence works along river banks or at lakes to obstruct the migration routes of herds. In fall, large numbers of caribou migrated from the Northern Peninsula southwards across the Exploits River and Red Indian Lake. Once a herd is on the move, the herd stubbornly follows the lead animals. If such leaders can be driven into a fence-trap or towards narrow exits in the fences, the rest of the herd will follow.

In 1768 John Cartwright, who travelled along the Exploits River, described the fences as consisting of felled trees that had been left hanging on the stump; every freshly cut tree was made to fall on the previous one. To make the fences impenetrable, weak spots were filled with branches or were secured by large stakes and bindings. Where there were no trees, the Beothuk drove 2 m sticks into the ground at an angle and tied birchbark strips to the tops. The movement of the bark strips in the wind and the sound of their striking against each other frightened the caribou and kept them from passing between the sticks.

Trees Cut to Form a Fence
Above: Trees Cut to Form a Fence

Reproduced by permission of Ingeborg Marshall.

Sticks with Birchbark Strips Dangling from the Top
Left: Sticks with Birchbark Strips Dangling from the Top
The drawing was part of John Cartwright's map of the Exploits River, 1773.

Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada/NMC 27.

Most of the fences ran parallel to the river, but some had leads extending into the forest to funnel the animals towards narrow exits by the water, where hunters in canoes would await them. In 1768 fences in the area of Bishop's Falls and Grand Falls extended more than 15 km. In the early 1800s, they ran along both sides of the river from Badger to Red Indian Lake and were estimated at about 50 km.

Hunting Tools

The major tool for hunting caribou was a spear - called amina. It consisted of a 3 m wooden shaft, tipped with a slender, nearly triangular iron point. Originally the spears would have had stone or bone points.

Other furbearers were shot with arrows or caught in snares, deadfalls or traps. Beaver may have been harpooned. While many North American native people kept dogs to assist in hunting, the Beothuk appear not to have had dogs.

For hunting seals the Beothuk used a special sealing harpoon - called a-a-duth. It consisted of a 3.7 m shaft with a detachable head tied to a long line. Formerly, the head was fitted with a stone blade; later they made blades from iron. When a seal was harpooned and the head was embedded in the animal, the shaft was withdrawn and the seal was hauled in by the line.

Shanawdithit's Sketch Showing a Spear and a Sealing Harpoon
Above: Shanawdithit's Sketch Showing a Spear and a Sealing Harpoon

From James P. Howley, The Beothuks or Red Indians: the Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland (Cambridge: University Press, 1915) following p. 248.


Sealing Harpoon Head
Left: Sealing Harpoon Head

Courtesy of the Newfoundland Museum, St. John's, NL.

Fish, particularly salmon, were probably speared. It is possible that the Beothuk also constructed fish weirs, used fish hooks or fished with netting made from rushes or reeds. While the captive Shanawdithit reported that her people considered it the greatest good luck to kill a whale, she did not disclose how they secured such large marine mammals.

The Beothuk also had clubs, knife blades hafted to handles, and perforating tools made from beaver incisors, stone splinters and, in historic times, from nails or pieces of broken glass. Many additional implements or working aids were created from pieces of wood, bark, sticks, roots and shell. While such tools were simple, they were highly functional though easily perishable and have rarely if ever been found by archaeologists.

Food Preservation

Important components of the Beothuk's strategy for providing food were their methods of preservation. They cut some of the meat into strips and dried or smoked it to prevent spoiling. In this form it was easy to carry and could be eaten without further preparation. If there were large amounts of surplus meat (for example, after a caribou drive), the meat was divested of bones and packaged into bark boxes, each box containing about 75 to 100 kg, and kept in special store-houses. Once the meat was frozen it would keep for the winter.

Shanawdithit's Sketch of a Store-House
Shanawdithit's Sketch of a Store-House

From James P. Howley, The Beothuks or Red Indians: the Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland (Cambridge: University Press, 1915) following p. 248.

Shanawdithit's Sketch of a Smoking House
Shanawdithit's Sketch of a Smoking House

From James P. Howley, The Beothuks or Red Indians: the Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland (Cambridge: University Press, 1915) following p. 248.

The Beothuk rendered caribou fat into clear grease and stored it in birchbark containers; seal blubber was heated to produce oil and kept in seal or caribou bladders. Lobster tails and salmon were dried or may also have been smoked, bird eggs were boiled and dried or mixed with other ingredients and then dried in the sun. The Beothuk also made a kind of pudding or sausage that they stuffed into animal intestines.

Shanawdithit's Sketch, Different Kinds of Animal Food
Shanawdithit's Sketch, “Different Kinds of Animal Food”

From James P. Howley, The Beothuks or Red Indians: the Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland (Cambridge: University Press, 1915) following p. 246.

Cooking

Cooking was usually done over an open fire, either in a mamateek or outdoors. The Beothuk lit a fire by striking two pieces of iron pyrite together to produce sparks that would ignite bird down or other easily inflammable matter. They roasted large pieces of meat on a spit, and placed smaller pieces on sticks around the cooking fire. Fowl and other food items were cooked in birchbark containers. Some of the bark pots were large enough to hold several birds the size of ducks. First the water was brought to a boil by placing heated rocks into the pot and then food was added. More hot stones kept the contents of the pot boiling. This method was relatively cumbersome and it is not surprising that the Beothuk readily adopted European kettles and pots.

Shanawdithit's Sketch of Different Types of Bark Containers
Shanawdithit's Sketch of Different Types of Bark Containers

From James P. Howley, The Beothuks or Red Indians: the Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland (Cambridge: University Press, 1915) following p. 248.

Four Bark Dishes
Four Bark Dishes

Courtesy of the Newfoundland Museum, St. John's, NL.

The Beothuk made a variety of vessels for cooking and storage from birchbark. Simple cups were folded from a rectangular piece of bark and then sewn together at the upper edge with split roots. More elaborate dishes were produced from a sheet of bark that had been cut into a specific template or preform. After it was folded into the desired shape the seams were stitched. Some bark dishes had pinked edges or were decorated with chevron designs.