The Recent Indians of the Island of Newfoundland
The direct ancestors of the Beothuks were a people who left behind tools and other objects that archaeologists call the "Little Passage Complex" named after the first recognized Little Passage site on Newfoundland's south coast. (The term "complex" is used by archaeologists to describe a pattern of similar tools used throughout a region over a period of time, particularly when comparatively little is known about the people who produced those tools). The most distinctive of the tools made by Little Passage people were arrowheads that were quite different from anything that had ever been made on the island of Newfoundland.
Little Passage Tools
These arrowheads are beautifully fashioned and frequently made of a distinctive greenish chert, a rock that is very similar to flint. It is extremely hard and when it breaks, it does so in a very predictable way. This means that Native tool-makers could shape this stone into a variety of cutting, piercing, and scraping tools. Chert, like flint, also has very sharp edges; when freshly chipped, these edges are as sharp or sharper than a razor blade.
Besides arrowheads, Little Passage people also made small scrapers, about the size of a thumbnail, on the ends of stone flakes. These were used to scrape the fat from hides to make leather that would be then turned into clothing and other useful things. They also made small cutting tools called "linear flakes" which are flat, rectangular pieces of chert usually measuring about 1 cm by 5 cm. A linear flake has two sharp edges and would have been used perhaps as a kind of disposable pocket knife. These linear flakes were chipped away from a larger piece of chert, called a "core", used for a time until they were dulled, and then thrown away.
For heavier chopping and cutting, Little Passage people made a tool that archaeologists usually refer to as a "biface". "Bi", of course means "two", and this term simply refers to a tool that is chipped or worked on both faces or sides. Many Little Passage bifaces measure about 10cm by 6-7cm, and we believe that they were used to butcher large animals and perhaps even to cut wood--a sort of all-purpose tool for rough work.
We have no evidence of the sort of structures lived in by Little Passage people, but we believe that they built temporary shelters, perhaps shaped like a Plains Indian tipi, but smaller, and probably covered with bark, or perhaps hide. For cooking and warmth, the Little Passage people made fires on small beds of fist-sized rocks.
We wish we knew more about the Little Passage people, but because Newfoundland's acid soils tend to dissolve organic materials like bone, wood, and hide, most Little Passage sites contain only a scattering of stone tools and the remains of their long-dead campfires. As a result, we can only guess at the clothes they wore, the boats they built, and most other aspects of their life.
On the other hand, a few Little Passage sites do contain some animal bones--usually because the presence of limestone or shells at these locations which made the local soil less acidic than usual. Archaeologists can learn much about how past peoples lived by studying the animal bones (or "faunal remains") left behind by these peoples. For example, evidence from faunal remains tells us that during the year hunting bands in our part of the world had to synchronize their movements very precisely in order to find the animals they needed. Caplin, for instance, would have been a welcome and abundant source of food, but caplin only come in to spawn at certain beaches for a short time each year. Salmon move upstream to spawn only in specific rivers and at specific times. Birds' eggs, also, are available only for a limited time each year and only at nesting sites. To take another example, if an archaeologist finds a site with caribou bones, he or she will look at those remains to determine if they were those of a very young animal. That would tell the archaeologist that the animal was killed and eaten in the spring, and therefore, that the campsite was occupied during that time of year.
Little Passage Diet
From the information available it appears that the Little Passage people were dependent upon caribou, seals, and to a lesser extent inshore fish, beaver, ducks, and sea birds. This is not surprising since we are relatively sure that all of the Native peoples who lived in Newfoundland hunted the major species such as caribou and seals and supplemented their diet with less important species. Newfoundland's climate and soils, for example, would not have allowed Native people to grow the corn, beans, and squash that were essential to the agricultural peoples such as the Huron of Ontario.
So, we can be reasonably sure that the Little Passage people hunted and fished for much the same food as their descendants, the Beothuks. Evidence of Little Passage occupations are often found at Beothuk sites which tend to be located at the bottom of bays and other sheltered areas. Archaeologists digging at these sites have found Little Passage stone tools beneath iron nails picked up by the Beothuks from abandoned European fishing premises. The Beothuks worked these nails into arrowheads and perhaps lance points, and it is their use of iron that distinguishes them from their ancestors. This is, in fact, the evidence that has led us to conclude that the Little Passage people became the Beothuks. Actually, they are the same people; it's just that when the Little Passage people acquired European goods, we refer to them as Beothuks. (In the same way historians call the earlier people of Italy "Romans", while their descendants today are known as "Italians". They are the same people, but at different times in their history.)
Most of the Little Passage sites found have dated to about 700 to 1000BP. (Archaeologists use the term "BP" or "Before Present" as a short-hand way of indicating years before the present day). Thus, the oldest Little Passage site dates to about 1000 years ago. Just as the use of different tools distinguish the Beothuks from the Little Passage people, so too the immediate ancestors of the Little Passage people used slightly different artifacts.
The Beaches Complex
Archaeologists refer to those ancestors of the Little Passage people as possessors of the "Beaches Complex". The Beaches complex is named after the Beaches site in Bonavista Bay. We know even less about these people than we do about the Little Passage people. Archaeologists can tell a Beaches site from a Little Passage site by the different "raw material" used by the two groups to manufacture their stone tools. Instead of the fine-grained blue-green chert favoured by the Little Passage toolmakers, the Beaches people preferred coarser grained black and brown cherts and a relatively common rock called rhyolite. Rhyolite is much coarser-grained than chert and it cannot be worked as carefully.
The Beaches "arrowheads" are larger than their Little Passage counterparts and not nearly as well-made. In fact, these large Beaches projectile points may have been used to tip darts or spears rather than arrows. Some archaeologists have a suspicion that the bow and arrow was an innovation acquired by the Little Passage people, but unknown to the people of the Beaches complex. However, since the Little Passage tools appear to have "evolved" from Beaches tools, we are fairly sure that these two complexes merely refer to the same people at slightly different points in time.
Courtesy of Dr. Ralph Pastore, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.
Archaeological evidence of the Beaches presence in Newfoundland is, to date, not plentiful, and consequently our understanding of these people is even less than that of the Little Passage people. We have very few dated Beaches components on the island, but they do tend to be a bit older than that of the Little Passage complex. On the other hand we do not even know exactly when the Beaches complex begins, or where.
It is possible that the origins of the Beaches complex are to be found in a poorly understood culture called the Cow Head complex, named after the Cow Head site on the island's west coast. Cow Head tools are also found at the L'Anse aux Meadows and in Bonavista Bay. These sites have been dated to about 2000 years ago to perhaps 1600 years ago or later. Some of the stone tools made by Cow Head people are reminiscent of those made by the Maritime Archaic people who flourished on the island more than 3000 years ago, and some archaeologists believe that there is a connection between the Maritime Archaic tradition and these earliest Recent Indians. The problem is that in Newfoundland no Indian sites dating to the period 3200-2000 BP have yet been located.
Courtesy of J. A. Tuck, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.
In summary, then, we can trace the ancestors of the Beothuks back about 2000 years ago on the island of Newfoundland through the Little Passage, Beaches, and Cow Head complexes. However, the further back we go in our attempts to trace the Recent Indians ancestors of the Beothuks, the less we know about them. As more early Recent Indian sites are discovered, however, we may yet understand how they lived and where they came from.