Culture History of the Lower North Shore

Early Cultures

At the end of the Ice Age Paleo-Indian big game hunters were living on the Continental Shelf lowlands. When rising seas created the Gulf of St. Lawrence 10-12,000 years ago these groups retreated to high beaches and terraces along the coast LNS. As the land was released from the weight of glacial ice, shorelines decreased and successive peoples camped on new beaches as they were formed. Today, as in the past, people tend to live near the active shore. To find the most ancient Indian sites one must hunt on the highest shorelines. Scallop and mussel shells excavated from one of these ancient beaches in Harrington Harbor are 8000 years old.

While fluted point Paleo-Indians probably lived on the highest marine terraces along the LNS, the earliest evidence so far from Maritime Archaic Indians, whose 6-8,000 year old sites are found on high beaches in Blanc-Sablon, Old Fort, Mutton Bay, and Chevery. These sites include artifacts made from quartz and ground stones. Bone tools and harpoons would have been present but have not been preserved. Towards the end of this period human burials appear for the fisrt time. The l’Anse Amour Burial Mound in southern Labrador contained an adolescent male buried with a toggling harpoon and a decorated harpoon line toggle and slender stone spear points. Similar mounds, among the earliest known in North America, have been found near Blanc Sablon.

Between 4-5,000 years ago, toward the end of the warm Hypsithermal period, the descendants of these early LNS Indians were part of a widespread Maritime Archaic culture known from Maine to Newfoundland and northern Labrador as the Maritime Archaic. By this time burial mounds were replaced by ‘red paint’ cemeteries. These ‘red paint’ cemeteries contained individuals and grave goods covered with a thick layer of red iron oxide. The Maritime Archaic culture had a strong maritime focus, although caribou and land game were also important. As their burial practices shifted from single mound burials to centralized cemeteries, MA dwellings changed from small 2-3 family dwellings to large multi-family longhouses. Group sizes increased, society grew more complex, and long-distance trade in native copper, birch bark, and Ramah chert, found only in northern Labrador, brought people into contact from Maine to Labrador. A cache of partially-finished slate axes and gouges made of Newfoundland slate was found while excavating a house foundation in Brador and objects made from this material have been found in MA sites from the LNS to northern Labrador. Conversely, Labrador Maritime Archaic points made of Ramah chert have been found as far south as Maine.

Scattered MA tools and red paint cemetery finds from a gravel pit in Tabatière reveal that Maritime Archaic peoples also lived along the LNS. The gravel pit was destroyed by road-building. In 2002-3 we excavated a 4,000-year old longhouses at Petit Mécatina 1 (EdBt-1) and Belles Amours Point (EiBi-19). Other MA sites and cemeteries will probably be found as far west as Natashquan.

Later Indian Cultures

Around 3600 B.P. Labrador Maririme Archaic culture was replaced by a more interior-oriented culture with ties to the west in the Upper St. Lawrence Valley. The Intermediate and Late Period Indian cultures that followed balanced their coastal and interior hunting territories, spending the summers on the coast fishing and the winters on the interior hunting caribou. During the next 3000 years, LNS Indians found their LNS coastal territories occupied several times by Palaeo-Eskimo cultures (Groswater and Dorset cultures) and after AD 1600 by Inuit who periodically expanded their Labrador settlements areas into the Gulf. These incursions disrupted Innu societies and may be responsible for for rapid succession of different Indian cultures that occupied the LNS and Labrador between 2500-1500 years ago. By AD 700 these people become recognizable archaeologically as the ancestors of the modern Innu Indian people who currently reside along the LNS. The appearence of Inuit (Eskimo) and Europeans on the LNS between 1600-1750 resulted in Innu people becoming strongly oriented toward interior caribou hunting and the fur trade. Eventually hostilities with Innu and Europeans caused the most Inuit to retreat north to Cartwright and Hamilton Inlet. Today the LNS villages are a mix of Innu, Inuit, and various European people. Indians still maintain a strong attraction to hunting and trapping on the interior while Inuit and Europeans largely work as fisherman and seasonal seal-hunters.

Arctic peolple on the LNS

After 4000 years ago the warm Holocene climate began to cool and Paleo-Eskimos people from Siberia and Alaska migrated into the Canadian Arctic, Greenland, and Labrador. Throughout the Pre-Dorset period (4000-2800 BP) Inuit people remained in northern Labrador, but after 2,800 their successors, Groswater culture, began expanding south, reaching Newfoundland and the LNS by 2,500 BP. The Groswater expansion was facilitated by onset of a cold period that expanded Arctic marine conditions south to Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. With the ice came large numbers of sea mammals-especially milions of harp seals that migrate annually from summer ranges in Greenland to winter stations in the Gulf and around Newfoundland where they give birth and wean their pups on the water sea ice. Groswater sites lasted several hundred years on the LNS, ending apparently when warmer winters brought a collapse of the Gulf harp seal herd. The Groswater intrusion into former Indian territories must have created difficulties fot the Indians groups who relied on the LNS for summer salmon fishing and sealing. A second Palaeo-Eskimo culture known as Dorset, arrived from the north about 2,000 BP. Dorsets occupied the entire Island of Newfoundland for until about AD 700, but only a few small Dorset sites are found on the LNS, perhaps because of Indian resistance.

A third Inuit occupation of the Gulf began after the first Europeans arrived in Newfoundland waters. The whale-hunting Thule culture arrived in the Canadian Arctic from Alaska about AD 1350. Thule people, with sledge dogs, large skin umiaks, and Siberian-style bows and arrows rapid replaced (and possibly assimilated) the less powerful people and advanced south into Labrador, reaching the Strait of Belle about the same time as Europeans. By the 1550s Inuit raiding parties were terrorizing Europeans fisherman, burning their fishing stations and taking boats, sails, and iron tools. By 1600 Inuit began to settle permanently along the LNS as far west as Harrington Harbor. The Gateways Project has discovered several Inuit winter sites dating between 1600-1750 between Brador and Cape Whittle. In this case the cold Little Ice Age and presence of a large population of harp seal combined with prospects for European trade and plunder made the Gulf a favorable Inuit settlement area, even if it was far from a normal Inuit Arctic habitat. Over time, however, the combined military pressure from well-armed Europeans and their Indian allies caused the Inuit to retreat back to their current southern settlement limit on the central Labrador coast. In the 19th century a few Inuit families returned LNS villages like St. Augustine, joining Innu, Newfoundlanders, and others who make up the present-day population of the LNS.