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Letter from Newfoundland: Homing in on the Red Paint People Volume 53 Number 3, May/June 2000
by Angela M.H. Schuster

(Lynda D'Amico)

Port au Choix, Newfoundland--

More than 5,000 years ago, this barren, sea-lashed coast was home to the Maritime Archaic Indians (MAI), who hunted and fished the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland for more than 2,000 years. The first evidence of the Maritime Archaic culture was discovered more than 30 years ago when James A. Tuck of Memorial University of Newfoundland excavated 56 elaborate burials exposed during housing construction on a small promontory at Port au Choix, on the Gulf of St. Lawrence just south of the Strait of Belle Isle.

Buried between 4400 and 3300 B.P., the dead--along with offerings of tools, animal bones, carved animal effigies, and small, white quartz pebbles--were covered in red ochre, earning them the moniker the "Red Paint People." Tool kits contained woodworking implements for building dwellings and watercraft; finely wrought bone and ivory fishhooks, harpoons, and harpoon heads, bone foreshafts; and long, narrow ground slate lances for hunting whale and walrus; and fragments of fish spears, all of which pointed to a lifeway dependent on the deep sea.

[image] Priscilla Renouf points to 5,500-year-old archaeological features. (Angela M.H. Schuster)

In 1997, a team led by Memorial University archaeologist Priscilla Renouf and geomorphologist Trevor Bell found the first-known MAI habitation site. Now known as the Gould Site after the family on whose property it lies, the MAI settlement is spread over ten acres on a broad flat terrace. "This was an idyllic location,"says Renouf. "The site offered a freshwater pond, shelter from the wind, and an excellent view of the ocean."

To date, Renouf and her team have unearthed gouges for woodworking; projectile points; fish spears; cut spruce logs; hearths; pits; hundreds of post holes for dwellings; distinct pairs of small, deep holes that may have once held drying racks for skins, fish, or meat; and, not surprisingly, several deposits of red ochre. The artifacts range in date from 5500 to 3300 B.P.; the earliest finds predate the cemetery by more than 1,000 years. "It's still too early to tell whether the settlement was occupied year-round or seasonally, or just how many people may have lived there." says Renouf. She will return to the field this summer in search of answers.

Angela M.H. Schuster is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America