Precontact Beothuk Land Use

The Beothuk were a self-sufficient people who exploited marine and terrestrial resources on and around the island of Newfoundland for food, clothing, and shelter. Before the arrival of Europeans in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the Beothuk inhabited many parts of the island, where they employed a seasonal round of activities to satisfy their needs. Most bands spent the warmer months near the coast harvesting fish, marine mammals, sea birds, and other resources before moving further inland to hunt caribou and other fur-bearing animals during the fall and winter. The Beothuk also gathered edible roots, berries, and fruit when in season.

Fragments of Bows, Roasting Sticks, and Other Beothuk Artifacts, ca. 1915
Fragments of Bows, Roasting Sticks, and Other Beothuk Artifacts
Precontact Beothuk likely hunted caribou with bows and arrows and roasted fresh meat over an open fire.
From James P. Howley, The Beothucks or Red Indians: The Indigenous Inhabitants of Newfoundland (Cambridge: University Press, 1915) Plate XXXIII.

By harvesting a wide range of resources instead of specializing in one or two activities, the Beothuk were better-equipped to withstand years when the caribou hunt failed or when seal and other prey populations were low. The Beothuk, however, had to adapt to the changing nature of their environment to survive – most animal resources migrated regularly, while edible plants and berries were in season for a limited period of time and only in certain areas. Because they could only harvest resources as they became available, the Beothuk had to regularly move from one area of the island to another and employ a wide range of hunting, fishing, and food-preservation strategies.

Precontact Beothuk

Prehistory is the period of time before the emergence of written records, which in Newfoundland and Labrador occurred upon the arrival of Europeans around 1500 AD; the period after the emergence of written records is known as the historic period. The direct ancestors of the Beothuk were a precontact group of Algonkian origin who are today known as the Little Passage people. These men and women inhabited the island of Newfoundland about 1000 years ago and, like their Beothuk descendents, were hunters, fishers, and gatherers. According to historian Ingeborg Marshall, the two groups “were the same population; for purposes of classification, however, Beothuk denotes the historic phase of this people” (1996 p.13).

While archaeological evidence has revealed much about the Beothuk people's diet, hunting practices, and seasonal movements during the precontact period, much uncertainty still surrounds their society and culture. It is unknown, for example, exactly how many Beothuk lived on the island of Newfoundland at the time of European contact, although many researchers believe they numbered between 500 and 2,000 people.

Further, archaeological data may only provide a partial picture of precontact Beothuk society. Researchers have found a variety of bones at Beothuk sites which indicate they ate salmon, seals, caribou, and other animals, but they may have caught more species than existing evidence indicates. Capelin and mackerel are available in Newfoundland, but no known evidence proves they were part of the Beothuk diet. It is therefore important to understand that our knowledge of precontact Beothuk society and practices is incomplete and subject to revision as future archaeological evidence emerges.

Available Food Sources

The Beothuk were a hunting-gathering people who had to constantly adapt to and understand their environment in order to survive. They recognized which plants and berries were edible and which were poisonous; were familiar with the migratory habits of caribou, seals, and other species; and developed effective hunting strategies and food-preservation techniques. The Beothuk were also skilled at making clothes, shelters, canoes, containers, and other items out of animal skins, tree bark, wood, and other materials they were able to harvest.

Sketch of a Beothuk Canoe, ca. 1915
Sketch of a Beothuk Canoe, ca. 1915
The Beothuk made birchbark canoes ranging in length from 12 to 22 feet. The dimensions in this sketch were taken from a museum model, and possibly based on the sketch in John Cartwright's map of the Exploits River.
From James P. Howley, The Beothucks or Red Indians: The Indigenous Inhabitants of Newfoundland (Cambridge: University Press, 1915) Plate III.

A major problem the Beothuk had to overcome was the relative scarcity of land mammals available on the island of Newfoundland. Unlike Labrador, precontact Newfoundland lacked moose, porcupine, and other species many mainland Indigenous groups depended on for survival. Far fewer prey species existed in Newfoundland. Caribou was a major part of the Beothuk diet, although they also hunted bear, arctic hare, beaver, fox, marten, and otter. The scarcity of land animals made the Beothuk more vulnerable to the changing nature of their environment – if caribou numbers were low one year, hunters would have few other prey species to fall back on.

Newfoundland's coast and surrounding waters were far richer in exploitable resources than its interior. The Beothuk primarily relied on seals and salmon, but harvested a wide range of fish and marine mammals, including whales, smelt, flounder, lobster, scallops, mussels, and clams. In addition, they hunted seabirds – including ducks, great auks, geese, murres, bald eagles, and cormorants – and gathered their eggs.

Although Newfoundland's harsh climate and poor soil made it difficult for many fruits and vegetables to grow, the island did produce a variety of edible roots, plants, and fruits the Beothuk harvested and consumed. They also ate the inner bark of spruce trees when other food sources were scarce.

Seasonal Cycle

To better-exploit a wide range of natural resources, some Beothuk bands lived in different areas of the island at different times of the year, while others settled in areas that allowed them to exploit both coastal and interior resources without having to travel great distances. The migratory patterns of various animal species greatly influenced when the Beothuk shifted their harvesting efforts between coastal and interior resources. Of particular importance were caribou, seals, and salmon, which accounted for a large part of the Beothuk diet. Because of the island's rich marine resources, the Beothuk spent much of the year harvesting resources in coastal areas, particularly during the warmer months.

As Arctic ice filled coastal waters in late winter and early spring, the Beothuk visited headlands and islands around Newfoundland's northeast coast to hunt migrating seals. They harvested a variety of species, including harp, harbour, and bearded seals. During the spring and summer, they gathered shellfish, including clams and mussels, and caught herring, smelt, and other fish. The Beothuk hunted sea birds with bows and arrows and collected eggs at breeding colonies in the late spring and early summer. When possible, they also caught whales visiting inshore waters later in the summer, although it is unknown if they only harvested beached whales or actively hunted the marine mammals in canoes.

The annual July salmon run was an important food source for the Beothuk people, who likely caught the fish with spears, by building stone weirs (fences placed in the water to catch fish), or by using nets made from rushes and reeds. The Beothuk dried or smoked much of the salmon they caught to prevent surplus fish from going bad and to safeguard against future times of scarcity. In the late summer and early fall, the Beothuk picked a variety of wild berries and fruits that were in season and harvested edible roots.

The Beothuk moved further inland during the fall and winter to hunt and trap land mammals. The fall caribou hunt was an important activity that, when successful, provided the Beothuk with a large supply of meat as caribou were often plump after a summer of grazing. Each fall, large herds of caribou – which often numbered more than 1,000 animals – migrated south from the Northern Peninsula across the Exploits River. Precontact Beothuk likely hunted caribou with bows and arrows; although historic Beothuk built large fences to trap the migrating caribou, it is unknown if this was also a precontact practice. The Beothuk roasted fresh meat over an open fire, but also dried or froze much of the catch for future consumption. In addition, they made leggings, ponchos, moccasins, and other articles of clothing from caribou fur and skin.

The Beothuk hunted a variety of other land animals for both meat and fur during the colder months, including bear, fox, marten, and arctic hare. They also fished through frozen lakes and hunted ptarmigan and other birds available in the winter.

Not all Beothuk bands, however, may have followed the same seasonal round of activities, or placed the same emphasis on each food source. Depending on which portion of the island they inhabited, some bands may have spent more time inland hunting caribou, while others may have spent more time in coastal areas harvesting seals. Harp seals, for example, were plentiful on the northeast coast during the early spring and were likely a more important food-source for Beothuk living there than for those on the west coast. Similarly, salmon was likely less important for Beothuk living far away from large salmon rivers or near unproductive ones. Although the Beothuk timed their efforts to coincide with migrating animals, they would not have had enough time or energy to cross the island each year in search of a resource unavailable near their homes.

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