Prehistoric Indians of Maine
Bruce J. Bourque
The study of prehistoric peoples--those whose culture predates the written record--is the domain of archaeology, a discipline with methods much different from those of history. While historians work mostly with written documentation, archaeologists interpret clues found in the material remains of vanished cultures. Such clues, although often fragmentary and enigmatic, can tell us much about the lives of prehistoric peoples. Moreover, these physical remains are intellectually "inert"; they reflect none of the biases that are sometimes written into historic documents, and thus they leave archaeologists free to draw conclusions of their own.
Despite their differences, historians and archaeologists both strive to define patterns or regularities in the cultures they study. Prehistoric societies, like historic ones, behaved in patterned ways. They reproduced their houses and tools time and again with little change; they left remains of their preferred foods in location after location in characteristic ratios. The manner in which they buried their dead reflects consistent beliefs about afterlife. It is largely through the study of such patterns, revealed in the physical record, that we can construct models of the cultures that produced them.
The succession of prehistoric peoples that moved in to occupy our region as the glaciers receded illustrates some important and pervasive themes in Maine's history. These themes prevail into the era of European settlement, despite the obvious difference in cultures, and indeed they help inform our understanding of Maine's place in the modern world. First, prehistoric peoples and the Europeans who followed them were profoundly influenced by the rhythms and contours of the complex New England environment. Prehistorically and historically, survival strategies, population distributions, and social organization responded to an environment that changed daily, seasonally, and in longer climatic swings. A variety of ecosystems--coastal, mountain, wetland, riverine--added another complex of influences. In the early post-glacial period, this relation between culture and environment seems particularly dramatic because the landscape was rebounding rapidly, or seems so when we measure time in millennia rather than in decades or centuries. But the environment was no less a dominant force in the era of European settlement. In both cases, Maine's people accommodated in dynamic and creative ways to their physical surroundings. This chapter illustrates the diverse ways in which Maine's prehistoric inhabitants responded to a changing post-glacial environment.
A second theme important for understanding both prehistoric and historic eras is an appreciation for the influx of new cultures and new technologies, the dynamic mix of peoples and ideas that generated change and accommodation throughout the region. Constant interaction with the outside world, so evident in the overlays of prehistoric cultures in Maine, continued as a basic driving force in regional history in the era of European settlement. Environment and exogenous influences, then, set the parameters for prehistoric culture and European settlement. When either of these two conditions changed, the inhabitants of the region adapted, and an older way of life disappeared.
Humans in the New World
Modern Homo sapiens has existed for at least forty thousand years in Europe, Asia, and Africa, but the date of human entry into the New World is much less clear. Certainly humans were in the Americas by about twelve thousand years ago, for finely crafted spear tips called fluted points and other tools in styles dating just after this time have been found in all states and Canadian provinces and as far south as Guatemala. Indeed, generally similar tools were deposited in caves at the southern tip of South America about ten thousand years ago.
The people who made these fluted points are called Paleoindians. They are regarded as the ancestors of most New World natives except for the more recently arrived Inuit (Eskimo), Aleuts, and, perhaps, Athabascan-speaking peoples of the western United States. The uniformity of their tools, whether found in northern Mexico, northern Maine, or even southern Argentina, suggests a very rapid dispersal. But from where did they disperse? If these were the first people to enter the New World, we might expect to find similar archaeological evidence in Siberia, which was connected to Alaska by land during the late Pleistocene (glacial) epoch, but to date no such evidence has come to light. Yet if Paleoindians are not the first Americans, there should be evidence of their ancestors in the New World, and again no convincing evidence has been discovered.
The question of their origins is complicated by a further issue: the fate of the species they preyed upon. As mobile hunters and gatherers in a post-glacial environment, Paleoindians probably hunted caribou and musk ox, which now live only in northern regions. But they also had available to them several large species collectively referred to as Pleistocene megafauna, which included horses, camels, ground sloths, two types of elephant, two of giant bison, and even a giant beaver. These animals became extinct about the time Paleoindians arrived on the scene.
The disappearance of musk ox and caribou from the central and northern United States is understandable in terms of climatic change following the last ice age, but great debate surrounds the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna. Some feel this mass extinction was the result of the first wave of humans entering the New World. According to this scenario, the abundance of these large animals fueled a Paleoindian population explosion that sent a wave of people rolling across the North American landscape, extinguishing their prey as they went. Others, noting that humans failed to extinguish elephants, camels, and horses in the Old World, argue that there is no compelling reason to expect they should have done so in the New World. Furthermore, the Pleistocene extinctions wiped out small species as well as large ones, including many birds and small mammals that were not likely to have been the focus of Paleoindian hunters. Those who dispute the "overhunting" hypothesis believe the extinctions to be the result of profound yet poorly understood ecological changes accompanying the disappearance of the ice sheets.
Paleoindians in Maine
Many of the arguments surrounding Paleoindian origins do not pertain to this region of the continent, which was still emerging from under glacial ice sheets when Paleoindians inhabited regions to the south and west. But sometime between eleven and ten thousand years ago, Paleoindians did enter the region. Their remains, though widely dispersed in Maine and adjacent areas of Canada, seem clustered in compact areas where fairly large numbers of people may have made seasonal visits. The total Paleoindian population of Maine was probably small by comparison to those of more southerly regions and may even have been seasonal.
The landscape Paleoindians encountered in Maine differed considerably from that of modern times. After the sea and glaciers retreated, sedges, willows, grasses, and a few dwarf trees began to spread. This combination of plants, called tundra, is similar in some ways to the modern Arctic ecosystem. Mammoths and perhaps other now-extinct species occupied these open and relatively barren landscapes but may have been locally extinct by the time Paleoindians arrived in Maine.
This landscape was changing rapidly. Unlike the modern tundra of northern Canada and Alaska, which is the product of a harsh climate, the New England tundra resulted mostly from the relatively slow spread of tree species into the newly exposed landscape. Pollen samples from southern Maine bogs and ponds show the widespread presence of poplar, spruce, and jack pine as early as 12,000 BP (before the present time, or about 10,000 years BC). At first these species grew only in sheltered areas, but in southwestern Maine true forests had developed, and by 11,000 BP tundra had vanished from all but northern Maine.
Inference suggests that the predominant big-game species in Maine during Paleoindian habitation was caribou. Archaeologists initially felt Paleoindians were big-game specialists who ignored other animal and vegetable foods, a notion that resonated well with the Pleistocene overkill hypothesis. But many now believe Paleoindians throughout North America relied on a variety of food sources. After all, humans do not generally restrict their diets if they have access to a variety of edible materials. Further, varied diets require less energy to procure, provide more complete nutrition, and are more reliable in the face of fluctuating resource availability.
Even the popular notion that nonagricultural peoples like the Paleonindians relied mainly upon meat has been discounted. This theory derived in part from analogies made with the modern-day meat-eating Inuit hunters. But Inuits live in a region where large mammals are virtually all there is to eat, while Maine's Paleoindians very likely had more than megafauna or caribou herds available to them. Unfortunately, the remains of smaller mammals and plants are even less likely to survive in Paleoindian sites than elephant and caribou bones, so we still know little with certainty about the Paleoindian diet.
Whatever the diet of the Paeloindians, the climate that emerged after the ice age had profound effects upon their culture. Over much of their range, including Maine, they seem to have dwindled or disappeared entirely. In other areas, particularly the Southeast, Paleoindians adapted to changing conditions by becoming more sedentary, developing new kinds of tools, and exploiting an increasing range of food resources. However, between 10,000 and 8,500 BP, these cumulative changes characterized a new kind of hunting and gathering culture that archaeologists refer to as Archaic.
The Archaic Period in Maine
The Archaic period in eastern North America is usually divided into the early (ca. 10,000--7,500 BP), middle (ca. 7,500--6,000 BP), and late (ca. 6,000--3,000 BP) subperiods. The sizes of Archaic Indian populations during these subperiods are difficult to estimate, since the cultures were at least somewhat migratory and the settlements short-lived, and many sites have been destroyed by natural forces, particularly along the seacoast where land subsidence and attendant coastal erosion have been ongoing for the past ten thousand years. Nevertheless, it is significant that evidence for human occupation is much more abundant for each succeeding subperiod of the Archaic.
In Maine, Early Archaic artifacts are scarce, even in comparison to what remains of the much older and probably more mobile Paleoindians, suggesting that the population immediately following the Paleoindian period was very small and may have dropped to zero. The few known Early Archaic sites are near watercourses or lakes in western and southern Maine, and some were occupied by later Archaic peoples. These sketchy data suggest that Early Archaic Indians relied upon fish as well as game.
By middle Archaic times, Maine's Indian population had risen appreciably, and the artifact record is correspondingly better. Known sites range from far in the interior to the coastal islands. In general, however, they are more common in western Maine than to the eastward, and to date, few Middle Archaic artifacts have been reported from New Brunswick or Nova Scotia. The reasons for this distribution are not clear, but it is at least consistent with the notion that population was increasing from the southwest to the northeast.
Evidence suggests that Middle Archaic Indians were adapting to a more complex and varied landscape. White-tailed deer were probably the predominant game species for this period, as the projectile points that dominate their tool assemblages would imply. But sites of this period are often situated along streams at rapids, falls, river confluences, or lake inlets or outlets, where seasonal runs of shad, alewives, salmon, and eels were probably harvested. The importance of fishing is also suggested by their use of weights, or plummets, which probably accompanied fishing lines or nets.
Changes in the marine environment may have prompted other adaptations. Extensive erosion of early coastal sites makes it difficult to estimate the importance of coastal resources during Middle Archaic times. However, the Gulf of Maine, which began as a huge, fairly tideless bay of questionable productivity during Early Archaic times, was becoming more tidal and turbulent as crustal down-warping caused sea levels to rise through the seventh millennium BP. Increasing biological productivity probably did not go unnoticed by Middle Archaic populations. Indeed, Middle Archaic stone gouges, tools which are associated with dugout canoe construction, suggest both forest and sea resources were becoming richer. The notion that such a craft was used at sea is supported by the discovery of a few Middle Archaic artifacts from islands in Penobscot Bay.
Between 6,000 and 3,000 BP--the Late Archaic subperiod--northern hardwoods like beech, maple, ash, and elm became increasingly common, providing better habitat for deer and other food species. Perhaps in response to this change in food supply, late Archaic sites are richer and more widely distributed throughout the state. This clearly suggests higher populations. The archaeological record for the late Archaic is also more varied. Populations in different parts of the state sometimes exhibited very different forms of behavior, and from time to time, these late Archaic patterns shifted from one locality to another.
A third important change pertains to evidence for animal exploitation. Late Archaic coastal sites provide us with our earliest samples of food-bone refuse, an invaluable aid in reconstructing past diets. Most animal remains are found in refuse heaps called shell middens. They are composed mostly of mollusk shells, which render these middens slightly alkaline, thus protecting bones and other organic materials from the destructive effects of Maine's typically acid soil. Furthermore, shell refuse is bulky and accumulates rapidly in distinct layers or "strata," which incorporate artifacts and bone refuse from different periods of occupation. These stratified middens are a boon to Maine archaeologists, who must otherwise deal with generally thin, unstratified deposits close to the surface, where they are subject to disturbance. Over the last century, the wealth of data in the middens has led to considerable debate about the importance of cultural differences during Late Archaic Maine. However, during the past decade some consensus has emerged about who the Late Archaic peoples were, how they lived, and what external influences they brought with them. The Late Archaic is generally divided up into three somewhat distinct cultures.
Maine's Late Archaic Indians were apparently related to populations occupying the St. Lawrence Valley and adjacent drainages, people collectively referred to as the Laurentian tradition. Their historic origins are obscure, but linkages with earlier Middle Archaic cultures are apparent in their artifacts, particularly the flaked-stone hunting equipment and ground-stone woodworking tools. Laurentian sites are most prevalent in interior areas of the Penobscot and St. Croix river systems. We have little evidence of their food-getting activities or migrations, but again their sites lie on watercourses, many of them near likely fishing spots, and their small size suggests a relatively mobile lifestyle. Radiocarbon dates are also scarce, but those we have suggest that they may have arrived in Maine at about 6,000 BP. They disappeared as a recognizable group by about 5,000 BP.
Small Stemmed Point Tradition (SSPT)
The next group appeared by 5,000 BP. Unlike the Laurentian tradition, characterized by large flaked projectile points, the Small Stemmed Point Tradition is typified by small quartz projectile points and a variety of other quartz tools. These artifacts, like those of the Laurentian tradition, show links with Middle-Archaic cultures, harking back to earlier times. The SSPT sites, however, are found primarily in southwestern Maine, on or near the coast, and extend as far south as Long Island, New York. In some places this tradition dominates the whole Late Archaic period, but its appearance in Maine seems to represent a northern fringe population of the larger tradition.
We know more of SSPT subsistence patterns than those of any earlier group. Data come primarily from three sites: Seabrook, New Hampshire, where the bones of cod and swordfish were recovered in association with several plummets; the Turner Farm site on North Haven Island in Penobscot Bay, where a refuse pit produced clam, sea urchin, cod, swordfish, deer, and duck remains; and finally, the tidal falls on the Sheepscot River estuary, where cod and probable deer bones came from a stratum containing small quartz stemmed points. This evidence and the coastal location suggest the inhabitants consumed a mix of fish, birds, and game, focusing more upon marine resources than earlier peoples. Indeed, their ability to capture swordfish presages later deep-water maritime hunting along the central and eastern Maine coast.
The Moorehead Phase
What follows the SSPT is a cultural phenomenon that has attracted international attention for more than a century. In the late nineteenth century--a period of increasing interest in America's ancient past--amateur and professional archaeologists began focusing attention upon so-called Red Paint sites. These were characterized by pits filled with bright red ochre (powdered hematite) and unusual stone artifacts, some carefully ground and polished, others made of visually appealing stone. Soon they realized these were ancient cemeteries from which virtually all bone had decayed.
Perhaps the first to study such sites was Bangor Mayor Augustus Hamlin. In 1882, Orland farmer Foster Soper showed him several blood-red puddles in the plowed field on the banks of Alamoosook Lake. Near the puddles they found pecked, ground, and polished stone artifacts that differed from those found in the better-known shell midden sites along the coast. Since then, similar pits have been discovered and excavated by people with widely varying levels of competence. One superb early excavation was conducted near Soper's initial discovery by C. C. Willoughby of Harvard University's Peabody Museum. Willoughby later exhibited the artifacts and a model of his excavations at the World's Columbian Exhibition held in Chicago in 1892.
Far more aggressive and much less careful was Warren K. Moorehead, of the R. S. Peabody Foundation at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, who opened several cemeteries between 1912 and 1920. Avid interest in these cemeteries has continued unabated to recent times, and it now appears that few if any undisturbed Red Paint cemeteries remain. Archaeologists have given the label Moorehead phase to the culture that produced these elaborate mortuary remains.
Some archaeologists compared these spectacular cemeteries to the relatively humble artifacts from middens left by more recent cultures and concluded that there were no links between the two. They speculated wildly about the origins and disappearance of the "Red Paint People." The perception that these Indians were not related to later cultures began to change after the 1930s, when Douglas Byers, Moorehead's successor at the Peabody Foundation, discovered red-paint burials beneath the Nevin shell midden at Blue Hill Falls. Shortly thereafter, John H. Rowe recovered artifacts like those from red-paint cemeteries at a shell midden in Sorrento.
More recently archaeologists have excavated villages at the Turner Farm site on the island of North Haven, the Eddington Bend site on the Penobscot River, the Goddard site in Brooklin, and the Candage site on Vinalhaven. This, along with other data, make it clear that the Red Paint People were indeed Indians, although they seem to have undergone some sort of cultural flowering that set them apart from their forebears.
The geographical distribution of the Moorehead phase is not easy to define, in part because archaeological sampling throughout Maine and New Brunswick is so uneven. Secular artifacts have been found from Casco Bay east to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and northward into central Maine, but cemetery discoveries are confined to the area between the Kennebec and St. John rivers. Some flaked-stone projectile points from these cemeteries come from sources as far distant as the Lake Champlain area and the north Labrador coast. Cemeteries resembling those in Maine have been found in Labrador and Newfoundland.
Analysis of bone refuse from the Turner Farm site suggests that deer were the most important protein source during the Moorehead-phase times. More recent analysis of carbon and nitrogen isotopes from individuals buried at the Nevin site, however, indicate that cod and swordfish were more important than deer. Both fish species were presumably caught in deep water from seaworthy dugout canoes. The Turner Farm site on North Haven, at least, seems to have been occupied nearly year round. Insight into the origins of the Moorehead phase may be evident in its similarities of the SSPT. They were both coastal people who relied upon cod and swordfish, and they both used very similar plummets, woodworking gouges, and stemmed projectile points. In one respect, however, the production of ground-slate lance tips, the Moorehead phase resembles the Laurentian tradition or later cultures of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Sometime around 3,800 BP, all known traces of the Moorehead phase vanish for reasons we do not yet understand. Some local environmental change, perhaps involving the waters of the Gulf of Maine, may have been the cause. However, a similar rapid disappearance occurred among the culturally related Indians in Newfoundland and Labrador, suggesting more pervasive cultural or environmental influences.
The void created by the disappearance of the Moorehead phase was filled by a new archaeological culture known as the Susquehanna tradition, arriving, probably from the south, as suddenly as the predecessor left. The archaeological remains of the Susquehanna tradition are so different from those of the Moorehead phase that a complete population replacement is likely. Susquehanna-tradition sites yield distinctive thin, broad projectile points and other blade tools. Other technological changes suggest that people of the Susquehanna tradition, although occupying many of the same coastal sites as the Moorehead phase, apparently did not venture far from shore to hunt and fish. Both bone refuse and human bone isotope data indicate that marine resources were less important in their protein diet, which came largely from white-tailed deer and to a lesser extent from moose, shallow-water fish, shellfish, and seals. More Susquehanna sites have been found in the interior than those of the Moorehead phase.
A distinct break with the past is also apparent in Susquehanna ceremonial behavior. Typically, their cemeteries contain burned human remains and mortuary offering and less commonly burials in the flesh or burials of "bundles" of bones, perhaps exhumed from temporary graves or from raised scaffolds--practices known from many areas of North America during historic times. The remains are often richly furnished, though the number of artifacts dedicated to each individual is difficult to determine because they are found in common burial sites.
In southern New England and New York, the Susquehanna tradition persisted for several centuries, during which its tool forms underwent several stylistic changes. After about 3,500 BP, these southern groups developed the novel practice of carving cooking vessels from soapstone (steatite) and other soft rocks. In Maine, however, only one such stylistic shift is apparent among the artifacts, and only a handful of steatite vessel fragments have emerged from the extensive excavations at Susquehanna tradition sites. Indeed, virtually all distinctive elements of Susquehanna technology disappear from the archaeological record sometime before 3,500 BP.
The demise of the Susquehanna tradition in Maine is even more difficult to explain than that of the Moorehead phase. It was soon replaced by a very different artifact pattern, suggesting again a change in population. At present, we have little evidence of human activity in Maine during the centuries following the Susquehanna tradition decline. No appreciable archaeological data appear until about 3,000 BP, when thick, rather crudely flaked projectile points only vaguely resembling those of earlier times were deposited at several coastal and interior sites. These points have not been found in association with the Susquehanna tradition, and links between the two periods are anything but certain.
The Ceramic Period
Sometime before 2,500 BP, Maine Indians joined other northeastern Indians in a technological revolution of considerable importance: the making of ceramic pottery. This practice continued throughout the remainder of the prehistoric period, dying out rather quickly in Maine following the arrival of Europeans willing to trade kettles made of copper. The remains of these clay vessels are so ubiquitous at archaeological sites that the term "Ceramic period" is used in reference to the rest of Maine's prehistory.
Throughout the region, the earliest pottery style was characterized by coarse, one- to two-gallon cylindrical vessels with pointed bases bearing the impressions of cordage. The vessels are called Vinette 1 WARE, after the New York site where they were first identified. Within a few centuries a new, more refined, thinner pottery with various kinds of simple linear stamped decorations replaced the earlier Vinette 1 throughout northern New England. Even later, the vessel walls became thicker and less well fired. Stamped decoration remained in vogue until about 1,000 BP, when cord impression became the dominant decorative mode. Toward the end of the prehistoric period, a thin, well-fired pottery once again appeared, sometimes with globular bodies rather than the traditional cone form.
It is from the early Ceramic period that we have our first clear evidence of prehistoric house forms. A site near Isle au Haut dating from this period revealed a floor of darkly stained beach gravel about five meters in diameter, surrounded by a ring of clamshells. The house site is but the earliest of several now identified in central and eastern Maine. Although the sites vary in detail, the homes probably resembled the conical wigwam found throughout the greater Northeast during the early historic period. Such structures had pole frames covered by sheets of birch bark or matting, left open at the top to allow smoke from a small interior fire hearth to escape. In western Maine and much of New England, wigwams often had domed roofs, while to the east and north, as far as Labrador, the conical, tipi-like form was more prevalent.
Although the wigwam was perhaps the most common house form in Maine during early historic times, larger forms made of similar materials also existed. Some could hold thirty people in council. In the large agricultural villages of late prehistory, even larger "long houses" often housed several families.
Since Ceramic-period groups occupied most coastal shell middens, we know a great deal about theirdiets. The data suggest some basic differences from earlier times. Most important was the renewed dependence on fish and marine mammals. Unlike the more specialized Moorehead-phase Indians, however, Ceramic-period populations added marine species as part of a general trend toward dietary diversity. This is the sort of change anthropologists expect to see when a growing population finds that its preferred protein sources are no longer sufficient to sustain it.
One particularly marked aspect of this trend is the heavy exploitation of gray and harbor seals, which are especially nutritious because of their high fat content. Both species were hunted when they hauled out for pupping and molting, the former species between January and March and the latter between April and August. Ceramic-period people also made extensive use of shallow-water fish like flounder and sturgeon, but relatively less use of deeper-water species like cod. Finally, the importance of moose rose relative to deer, probably reflecting vegetational changes resulting from a slight but persistent cooling trend.
During two brief intervals, Ceramic-period populations abandoned a tradition of provincialism to participate in regional trade with areas to the east and north. The first period of exchange dates from early in the Ceramic period and is evident in the appearance of certain ceremonial artifacts from the Midwest, often similar to those found in the famed Adena burial mounds of the Ohio Valley. The second period begins after 1,000 BP and involves small chert tools originating from as far away as Ramah Bay, Labrador.
The Goddard site on Blue Hill Bay yielded an outstanding collection of such "exotic" stone tools, mostly scrapers and projectile points, along with numerous tools made of "native" copper quarried at Cap d'Or, Nova Scotia. But most interesting of all are two objects from the far north: a ground chert cutting tool typical of the Eskimo-like Dorset culture of Labrador and Newfoundland; and a Norse penny, minted between AD 1065 and 1080. Some commentators see this coin as evidence of a Norse visit to Maine, but there is little support for this inference. All other Norse artifacts found on native American sites have been from Inuit contexts well north of the St. Lawrence. The number of other exotics of northern origin at the Goddard site suggests that this coin too originated with Inuit or Indian groups farther north and that it moved south through the native trade networks. It is probably best regarded as a highly noteworthy false clue, for there is no further evidence suggesting that the Norse explored or colonized as far south as the Gulf of Maine.
In discussing the late Ceramic period, it is tempting to draw upon the accounts of early European explorers for descriptions of native life "at contact." This approach has its pitfalls, however. By the time Samuel de Champlain, Henry Hudson, and John Smith arrived in the New World, waves of cultural change caused by earlier European contacts far to the north were washing over what is now Maine.
When Jacques Cartier sailed into the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1534, Europeans had already been taking cod and whales there for many years. As a sideline, some traded metal goods and trinkets to Indians in return for furs and hides. After 1580, when felt hats became increasingly fashionable in Europe, the St. Lawrence fur trade intensified and focused upon the beaver, whose fur made the best felt. The effects of this trade were profound. By 1600, an entire population of Iroquoian-speaking people in the St. Lawrence Valley adjacent to northern Maine had vanished, probably because of warfare related to the growing European presence. Indians from Maine were among those trading furs to Europeans on the St. Lawrence by 1603, when Champlain met some of them there. These Maine Indians were also allied with Montagnais and Algonquin Indians in warfare against other Iroquois.
When Champlain arrived in Maine the following year, he found that Indians from NovaScotia had for some time been sailing European vessels called shallops into the Gulf of Maine to trade European goods for beaver furs. And by the time John Smith arrived in 1614, many Indians had already been struck down by European diseases to which they had little immunity.
Nevertheless, the peoples described by these explorers clearly retained many aspects of their traditional cultures. Two of these represent important Ceramic-period innovations. The first, agriculture, arrived in New England relatively recently when compared to its adoption by other North American cultures. This was because the corn, beans, and squash that originated in Mexico thousands of years ago were adapted to arid, hot climates, and required considerable genetic modification before strains hardy enough to be grown in New England were developed. Furthermore, it is becoming apparent to anthropologists that peoples used to hunting and gathering do not always embrace agriculture as a more "advanced" lifestyle. Indeed, agricultural societies often work harder and achieve lower levels of nutrition than their hunting and gathering ancestors, and they adopt these strategies only because they can no longer support themselves with wild foods.
The spread of agriculture into the Northeast is poorly documented, because vegetable remains are rarely preserved in archaeological sites. Samuel de Champlain reported Indians growing corn, beans, and squash at Saco and on the Kennebec River in 1604, but to the eastward it appears that natives remained essentially hunters and gatherers. Possibly, the "Little Ice Age," a period from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries that brought significantly colder temperatures throughout the whole north Atlantic region, had forced agriculture out of the area. But it is just as possible the corn-growers were recent immigrants from Massachusetts.
A second important cultural development difficult to trace is the birch-bark canoe. So fascinated were European explorers with this supple craft that they took several specimens back to Europe, and by the middle of the seventeenth century Micmas from Nova Scotia were making models for wholesale export to Europe. When Europeans first arrived, bark canoes were in use all across North America, particularly where birch bark was available. (Other kinds of bark were substituted in other areas.) Such a broad distribution implies that the basic development occurred long ago, unless it was as eagerly adopted by Indians as it was by the early French. Maine, however, was the southern limit of its predominance, for in Massachusetts wooden dugouts derived from archaic predecessors held sway. Therefore, it is possible that its adoption here was relatively recent.
A phenomenon which may mark the arrival of the bark canoe in Maine is the decline in abundance of large woodworking tools during the Ceramic period. Such tools are not absolutely required to make dugouts, but what interest archaeologists is the almost simultaneous appearance of other forms of smaller tools made of raw materials originating from the interior sections of Maine. It is tempting to see the fairly sudden onset of so much movement of material as the result of the bark canoe, which had great advantages over heavy dugouts on interior waterways.
European exploration and subsequent cultural, economic, military, and biological contact transformed the Indian way of life with breathtaking speed and generally disastrous results for native peoples. But we should not view prehistoric Maine cultures as static before the arrival of the white explorers. They, like the European-based cultures that came later, responded in dynamic ways to changes in physical surroundings and to the movement of peoples and goods in and out of the region.
Although we have much to learn about Maine's prehistoric peoples, we can extrapolate an important continuity from the complex overlay of their cultures. The choices they made about how they lived, got their food, fashioned their tools, celebrated the supernatural, and organized into social groups were made within the parameters set by landscape, fauna, climate, and other environmental opportunities and constraints. They made these choices consonant with human contacts outside the region through trade, technological exchange, population pressure, and war. Thus, their cultures evolved through dynamic interaction with both environmental and exogenous forces; when either changed, Maine inhabitants adapted, moved, or, as a culture, disappeared. That Maine people responded dynamically and creatively to such forces is not exclusive to the prehistoric period, of course. Despite the differences in cultures across a vast gulf of time, these two powerful forces worked their influence on peoples of the historic age as well.Go back to the top