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Home > Archaeology > Prehistoric Archaeology

Prehistoric Archaeology

The first people known to inhabit Maine, called  Paleoindians by archaeologists, moved in from the south or west about 11,000 years ago as the land area of Maine was recovering from its last glaciation.  They tended to camp on very well-drained soils away from river valleys and were probably the only prehistoric people to have lived in such areas in Maine.  Trees spread across Maine toward the end of the Paleoindian period, forcing subsequent inhabitants to live and travel along lakes, waterways and coastal areas. 

Travel on the ocean, main rivers and major lakes in dugout canoes characterized the Archaic period between 10,000 and 3,000 years ago.  Native American settlements concentrated at the inlets and outlets of major and medium-sized lakes, along the main river valleys, and in coastal sites.  The development of the birchbark canoe sometime between 4,000 and 3,500 years ago opened up the Maine interior away from major lakes and rivers.  Canoes enabled an increasingly dispersed settlement pattern around lakes and smaller streams during the late Archaic and Ceramic periods.

Native Americans in Maine began to construct and use pottery about 3,000 years ago.  During the Ceramic period, from around 1000 B.C. to 1500 A.D., Native Americans developed a generalized hunting, fishing and gathering economy based upon the mobility of birchbark canoes.  They combined subsistence and settlement strategies to move people to seasonally available resources, or to move food and other resources to population concentrations.  Life over most of Mainewas based almost entirely upon harvesting wild resources until after contact with Europeans, except in southwestern Maine where corn, bean and squash gardening was adopted by 1300 A.D.

When the first European explorers arrived in the 1500's a time of cultural change, which archaeologists call the Contact period began.  Contact with the European explorers initially added European materials to Native material culture.  The arrival of European settlers followed, generating other impacts upon Native life, including intensified fur trapping and trade, changes in intertribal networks, intermittent warfare, widespread disease, and eventually, significant loss of lands.

For most of prehistory, Maine Native Americans were hunter-gatherers.  They were generally mobile in lifestyle and lived in relatively small groups.  The largest communities consisted of several hundred individuals in villages which most of the population left at certain seasons. 

Five types of pre-European or prehistoric archaeological sites are known to exist in Maine:  (1) habitation (camp or village) and workshop sites; (2) lithic quarries; (3) cemeteries; (4) rock art; and (5) waterlogged sites preserving wood or other perishables.  There are about 6000 sites in Maine prehistoric archaeological survey inventory.  Habitation and workshop sites comprise the vast majority (over 95%) of the known archaeological locations in Maine.  They exhibit evidence of a range of activities from food procurement and processing to tool manufacture and maintenance.  More than 95% of these sites are located adjacent to canoe-navigable waters, whether coast, lake, river, stream or swamp, or former shorelines of the same.  The majority of sites are shallowly buried on till, sand, gravel or silt soils within 1.5 feet of the surface.  Some deeply buried sites, up to three meters in depth, occur in alluvial settings along rivers and streams.


The other types of known archaeological locations are far fewer in number than habitation sites.  Lithic quarry sites are mines for rock used in making stone tools.  They are highly localized sites, occurring at bedrock outcrops or along exposed, stony stream and river bottoms with extensive cobble materials.  Cemetery sites always exist in locations with well-drained sandy or gravelly-sand soils near a large or small river or lake shore, or within 100 yards of a major habitation site.  Rock art sites occur immediately adjacent to canoe-navigable water on particular kinds of bedrock outcrops.  They include both petroglyphs (rock carving) and pictographs (rock painting) and probably date within the last 3,000 years.  The Sebasticook fishweir is the only example of a waterlogged site in Maine so far, where wooden stakes from a fish trap structure, and some associated birchbark container fragments, have been preserved in anaerobic mud for between 2000 and 6000 years based on radiocarbon dates.