Prehistoric Archaeology

Site in Strong, Maine

Maine Native American Pre-European History (or Maine “Prehistory”)

There is a reasonable picture of Maine Native American life just before the arrival of Europeans, derived from Native traditional stories, archaeological information, and the written history (records) of European explorers and settlers.  Maine Native Americans all spoke closely related languages of what is now called the Algonkian language family. They were hunters, fishers and gatherers who moved seasonally along the coast and across the interior waterways in birchbark canoes during open water season.  Along the coast people operated tidal fish wears, collected clams, hunted deer, moose and bear, and moved seasonally to places of concentrated seasonal fish migrations.  They put the canoes up and moved on snowshoes, pulling toboggans, during winter, gathering clams, fishing when possible, and hunting on the land.  Along the Maine coast from Boothbay south and west, many Native American families planted corn, beans and squash in small gardens during the summer, supplementing wild food sources.  Cooking was done in ceramic pots. Hunting, including hunting for moose, deer, bear and probably seals, was accomplished with bow and arrow, along with nets, snares and other means, including with the aid of dogs. Fishing, seasonally, in salt and fresh water, was a major food source, using nets, weirs, traps, harpoons, and hook and line. About 25,000 Native American made their living in what is now the State of Maine. Many lived on the coast year round.  Some groups probably lived on large interior lakes year round, but they traveled easily in their bark canoes and may have visited the coast periodically.

This style of life, however, is at most 2000 years old or so. Technological, cultural and environmental change has occurred many times in Maine’s past.  We have only the dimmest glimpses of what came before the view of Native life recorded at the time of European arrival, from the archaeological record.  Tracing cultural connections between the archaeological past and modern Tribes living in Maine is difficult except for the last 2000 or so years.  We do not know what languages the people of the distant past (more than 2500 years) spoke or what they called themselves.  So, archaeologists have assigned names to the cultures of the past based on archaeological finds and archaeological ideas that may now sound somewhat out-of-date. These names, which identify time periods or “cultures,” serve as a shorthand for communicating among archaeologists.  As archaeologists we document changes in the technological capabilities of the people who lived here – such things as a change in primary hunting weapon from spear thrower to bow and arrow (perhaps 1500 years ago or 500 A.D.), changes in canoe building and travel capability from dugout canoes to birchbark canoes (perhaps about 2500 years, or 500 B.C.), changes in religion as expressed in rock art and burial practices (many, varied times), and changes in food getting patterns as the environment changed.

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Environmental History Summary

Maine, and adjacent states and provinces, have been available for human habitation since the end of the ice age, a date that varies from south to north but is roughly 13,000 calendar years, or 11,000 radiocarbon years.  During the roughly 13,000 years since people first moved into Maine there have been dramatic environmental changes, some within the last few thousand years.  These environmental changes include relative sea level rise, moderate climate change and related response by the forest and land plant cover, and change in water temperatures and tidal range within the Gulf of Maine with associated changes in fish, bird and marine mammal populations. 

For a thousand years after people arrived about 13,000 years ago, Maine was sub-arctic in character, at least on the land.  Northern Maine and higher elevations were grassy tundra, with open spruce forest (parkland) in central Maine, and dense spruce conifer forest in southernmost Maine and southern New England.  This environmental gradient is similar to that of Labrador today, and it supported large, migratory caribou herds.  We don’t know much about the nature of the Maine coast, but oysters and clams were present in at least localized areas by 10,000 to 9000 years ago.

Beginning about 11,000 years ago, the climate warmed over a few millennia to a condition (by 8000 years ago) a bit warmer and dryer than we have experienced in Maine over the last century or two.  Forest cover was dense and had changed dramatically by 7000 to 6000 years ago, with a higher percentage of hardwoods and nut-bearing trees than today, especially in southern Maine.  (It was perhaps more like the forest of Massachusetts or Connecticut was at the time Europeans arrived). The warmer and drier climate resulted, in part, in lowered fresh water levels in Maine and New England lakes, sometimes by a few feet (around 6000 to 5000 years ago).  Lower water flow in streams and rivers was also probable.  Although there has been minor variation, it seems as if the general trend over the last few millennia (roughly the last 3000 years) had been toward slightly cooler and wetter overall conditions (until the last 50 years).

Environmental change in the Gulf of Maine and along the immediate coast has been more dramatic.  Although these environmental changes would have primarily affected life along the Maine coast and near-coast, they might also have changed the relative population levels of interior and coastal Maine, seasonal movements of people between the coast and interior, and cultural relationships between coast and interior.

Before about 3500 years ago, the Gulf of Maine had a low tidal amplitude (a few feet), and generated warm surface water, at  least during summer.  At 4200 to 3800 years ago, surface water was warm enough to allow swordfish to swim inshore around the Gulf of Maine.  The over-arching environmental trend along the coast has been relative sea level rise.  This is a complex effect of bedrock reaction from removal of the weight of the ice at the end of the ice age and world-wide sea level rise as ice melted.  First the bedrock rebounded quickly after ice melt, but since about 12,500 (calendar, or 10,500 radiocarbon) years ago, Maine coastal bedrock has been sinking at various rates.  The maximum exposure of the shore (maximum relative sea level retreat and land exposure) at 12,500 years, is now about 65 m (roughly 200 feet) under sea level in the Gulf of Maine.  (There are hints of an erosional shoreline from 12,500 years ago under the Gulf of Maine at this depth.) Sea level has been rising at varying rates, but  inexorably, since 12,500 years ago (or about 10,500 radiocarbon).  The rate of rise was at first very quick, to about -20 m at 10,500 calendar years, then slower to about - 5 m (16 feet) at 6000 years, and - 3 m (10 ft) at 4000 years.  As sea levels rose, the estuaries and bays of the Maine coast would have progressively flooded, moving shellfish habitat and the limited intertidal zone slowly “inland.”  As a result, any shoreline camp sites (archaeological sites) would be successively flooded (mostly eroded).  Fishermen (scallop draggers) find stone tools of appropriate style (and age) at appropriate depths underwater around the Gulf of Maine. Archaeologists and geologists have documented stone tools from former beach deposits, with “fossil” or dead shellfish beds nearby at several places on the central Maine coast. These associated deposits probably mark coastal camp sites from which shellfish were harvested, likely producing shell middens.  The only remaining evidence of the camp sites is the stone tools.

About 3500 to 3400 years ago, something dramatic happened as relative sea level continued its slow rise in the Gulf of Maine.  This dramatic effect contradicts a model of slow sea level rise and slow, gradual increase in tidal amplitude that had been commonly accepted by geoscientists and archaeologist until recently. The evidence (Shaw et al. 2010) points to rising sea level cutting through a glacial till ridge, and flooding into what is now the Minas Basin (inner Bay of Fundy). Such a geographic change had an effect on Gulf of Maine tides (resonance) such that the amplitude of the tides increased dramatically in a few hundred years.  (Perhaps the tides increased from a few feet to 6 feet - 8 feet.) The effect was noticeable around the Gulf of Maine, as seen in a change from mud to sand deposition (increased tidal current flow) in Boston Harbor (Rosen et al. 1993).  As sea level has continued to rise, tidal amplitude has increased further, to the 8 to 13 foot tides now present on most of the Maine coast.  So, added on to the effect of average sea level rise in the Gulf of Maine (a few feet) is the increase in tidal amplitude, rising the highest (spring) tide water levels faster than “sea level.”

As tidal amplitude has increased, of course, so has the width and extent of the intertidal zone exposed at low tide.  The increase in intertidal zone shellfish populations probably also had an effect on inshore ecology, and the people dependent upon it.

Over the last few millennia, cold water from the Labrador current increased in flow around the headland of Nova Scotia and into the bottom waters of the Gulf of Maine.   As an effect of increasing tidal amplitude, tidal mixing has driven an increasingly strong up-welling of that cold bottom water along the eastern Maine coast, and counterclockwise circulation of that colder water around the Gulf of Maine. The warm, summer surface waters that supported inshore swordfish about 4000 years ago are now replaced with colder water and wide intertidal zones. This cold water upwelling, plus the tidal mixing, now supports a cold water inshore fishery, including lobster (of course) and clams, seals, birds, flounder, sculpin, sturgeon, and winter or spring spawning cod fish. What we have now is radically different from the 4000 year old warm summer surface water fishery. At the same time, the cold Gulf of Maine causes fog and cooler, wetter summer conditions on the coast than in the interior, supporting a coastal spruce forest that is more favorable to moose than to deer.

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Paleoindian Period (13,000 To 11,000 Years Ago)

The first people to inhabit Maine, called  Paleoindians by archaeologists, moved into New England from west of the Hudson River about 13,000 calendar years ago.  The terrestrial environment in Maine at the time was analogous to Labrador today -- patches of tundra and grassland, isolated spruce trees, and open spruce forest with small remnant patches of ice cap in the northern Maine mountains.  The Laurentide ice sheet had pulled back to the north of what is now the St. Lawrence river.  The St. Lawrence valley and Champlain lake basins were a cold, subarctic sea full of walrus, seals, whales and fish.  We don’t know much about conditions on the Maine coast, because it was miles offshore, compared to today.  That 13,000 year old coast is now marked by the 200 foot depth contour, approximately, or 33 fathoms underwater. 

Based on what were then inland archaeological sites (the ones archaeologists have access to today above current sea level), the Paleoindians made part of their living by hunting caribou, and perhaps the last of the mammoth and mastodon, and moving over vast areas of land on foot.  Their small camp sites, marked by distinctive stone tools, are spread across New England and the Maritimes provinces.  We trace their movements in part by the distance between stone tool quarries and where stone tools were dropped on sites, sometimes up to 500 km.  Maybe the Paleoindians had a coastal, seasonal economy based on shellfish and fish, but we don’t know.

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Archaic Period (10,000 To 3,000 Years Ago)

The regional climate in general warmed up rapidly after 11,000 years ago.  Various tree species continued to “move” northward (as their seeds were spread in various ways), and Maine was covered by a dense, hardwood-dominated mixed forest.  The coastal waters warmed in parallel with the forested interior. 

 Small Native American seasonal villages concentrated at the inlets and outlets of major and medium-sized lakes, along the main river valleys, and in coastal sites.  Travel on the ocean, main rivers and major lakes in dugout canoes characterized the Archaic period.  For about 7000 years Maine Indians used heavy, wooden dugout canoes, which are not readily portable.  We have not found any of the dugouts, but heavy woodworking stone gouges and chisels that were used to make the dugouts, and perhaps other large wooden objects, are common.  Travel between “flat water” must have been by foot trail.

A series of cultures, named by archaeologists usually after a specific stone spear head type, must have occupied the Maine coast.  Their coastal sites are under water, and only a few have been found preserved in deposits on the bottom of the inshore Gulf of Maine (Kelley et al. 2010).  For the most part, we assume that the people on the coast were similar culturally to the ones we find living along interior rivers and lake shores.  In a very few places along the central Maine coast, camp sites with deposits formed around 4500 to 4000 years ago, have survived above the rising sea level. The Nevin site is one of these.  All of these coastal camp sites before 4000 years ago include swordfish bone, when food bone is preserved at all.  The cultural names given to these coastal people are Small Stemmed Point (before about 4200 years), and Moorhead phase (between about 4200 and 3800 years).  These people, and their predecessors, participated in a religious tradition commonly called “Red Paint” for the red ochre pigment added to their graves.  Archaeologists now call the religion the Moorehead Burial tradition (from about 6000 to about 3800 years).

Then, sometime between 4000 and 3500 years ago, the coastal ecology changed, and the Gulf of Maine became increasing tidal and cold.  At about 3600 years, a culture called the Susquehanna tradition  (perhaps carried by an immigrant population, with extensive debate about the issue), moved into or was adopted across New England and the Maritimes provinces.  The Susquehanna tradition has origins (slightly older by a century or two), with very similar stone and bone technology, as far south as the Savannah River valley on the Georgia/North Carolina border.  The Northeastern variant was first recognized in the Susquehanna River valley.  Along the Gulf of Maine, the Susquehanna tradition people (or culture) were less maritime-oriented than their immediate predecessors (the Moorehead phase).  They also made extensive use of the vast Maine Maritimes interior.  Their stone tools included large, broad-bladed, stemmed knives, and stone drills that must have been used to make something out of wood that was put together with lashings or pegs about the diameter of a modern pencil.  (It is possible that these were lightly-framed boats, or some new variant of the dugout canoe.)  These people hunted for terrestrial mammals (deer, moose, bear, furbearers), and congregated seasonally at locations that were good for harvesting fish runs.  Their burial practices were different from the preceding Moorehead Burial tradition. Their culture changed slowly over the centuries, and may have been related to the first of the Ceramic period cultures in the region.

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Ceramic Period (2800 To 500 Years Ago)

We do not understand the details of the link between the environmental changes and Native American technological and  culture changes, if there is a direct link.  But there were a series of dramatic technological changes in Indian life between about 3500 and 2500 years ago.  The outcome of these changes was Native American life more or less as recorded by the first European explorers.

Sometime between about 3500 and 2400 years ago, it seems, Maine Indians invented or adopted the birch bark canoe. Whether the birch bark canoe was invented here, or perhaps in southern Canada, we don’t know.  It may have begun as a skin-covered boat of light frame construction, and developed into the “perfected” forms we know as the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and other tribe’s canoe designs of the 1800s.  But the Maine forest certainly grew large, plentiful paper birch at the time (3000 years or afterward), and has since. As we all know because of its modern canvas, plastic and aluminum copies, the birch canoe is back portable, can be poled upstream, can float in a few inches of water as well as being useable on larger bodies of water, and can carry a decent load of gear.  One can pole and drag a birchbark canoe up a beaver-dammed stream, and portage it between drainages, but one can not do that with a dugout.

We have not found any birchbark canoe pieces archaeologically, but the Maine and northern New England archaeological record changes dramatically between 3500 and 2400  years ago.  The large, heavy stone gouges and axes of the Archaic period become rare, and archaeological sites of about 3000 years of age and younger show up on good camping places on smaller drainages where one can easily go with a lighter canoe but not with a dugout. Canoes enabled an increasingly dispersed settlement pattern around lakes and smaller streams during the and Ceramic period, as well as increased long-distance travel.  Based on stone tools and the distribution of settlements, we are certain that a well-developed, effective birch canoe was in widespread use in Maine (and adjacent Maritimes and northern New England) by 2300 ro 2200 years ago, at least.  Rivers and large streams became highways, in a complex network that involved both upstream (with a pole, as needed) and downstream travel, with connecting portages.  Certain waterways were useful for upstream or downstream travel at certain times of the open water season depending on water flow conditions. Thus the network of canoe routes at times included “one way” routes and they changed with the seasons.

Another technological change occurred at about 2800 years ago, as Maine native Americans adopted or borrowed, from further south along the Atlantic coast, the making of fired clay pottery.

Archaeologists call the last 2800 to 3000 years or so of Maine pre-contact culture the “Ceramic period.”  Prior to the advent of ceramic pots, boiling cooking was done by heating rocks in a fire and dropping the hot rock into a wooden or bark container. During the Ceramic period,  Native Americans developed a generalized hunting, fishing and gathering economy based upon the mobility of birchbark canoes and cooking food in ceramic pots.  They combined subsistence and settlement strategies to move people to seasonally available resources, or to move food (such as baskets of clams, or dead moose) and other resources to camp or village locations.

Another technological change that created what we think of as traditional Native American life was the introduction of the bow and arrow, sometime around 2000 to 1500 years ago (around 500 A.D.).  The technology that preceded the bow and arrow was a thrown spear, thrown with the help of a throwing stick.  The throwing stick we today call an atlatl, which is an Aztec word.  Bows, arrows, spears and throwing sticks are mostly made of wood, so how do we know?  Throwing sticks sometimes were fitted with bone hooks, and the throwing sticks or the thrown spears were sometimes weighted with bone or stone weights of symmetrical shape. Moreover, an arrow must be tipped with a point that weighs less than a certain weight – a few ounces. So, all stone points that weight too much for an arrow are either spear points or knives.  The stone weights disappear from the archaeological record of our region about 3000 years ago, and small stone points, possible arrow points, become common after about 2000 years ago.

About 900 years ago (around 1100 A.D.)  corn, bean and squash horticulture, the final major addition to affect Native life in Maine before European-introduced changes, arrived in southernmost Maine (York, Cumberland counties, along the coast to Pemaquid and up the Kennebec River to Norridgewock). Life over most of Maine was based almost entirely upon harvesting wild resources until after contact with Europeans, except in southwestern Maine where corn, bean and squash gardening was adopted (from southern New England).  Only in southwestern Maine, Native people adopted the practice of growing corn and beans in gardens during the summer.  This agriculture affected southwestern Maine primarily causing population growth and larger village size; but eastern Maine remained outside the influence of agriculture.

Agricultural villages, where they occurred, may have been more dispersed hamlets with individual farmsteads, each with an acre of corn.  Champlain’s illustration of Native American corn fields around what is now Saco and Biddeford, circa 1605, is schematic but probably useful.  We know from accounts dating to about 1605, also, that some of these agricultural “villages” had populations of up to 1000 people.  But the buildings seem to not have been concentrated into palisaded, fortified villages as was common among the Iroquoian-speakers of New York, for example.

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Contact Period (After 1500 Ad)

European arrival in the Gulf of St. Lawrence circa 1500 A.D. introduced iron tools, copper kettles, glass beads, and other items of trade to a pre-existing Native American trade network in the Northeast.  After about 1600 A.D., when European settlement and trade in the Gulf of Maine increased, these and other items (including firearms) became much more common in Maine. Introduced European diseases, and warfare among tribes and between tribes and Europeans, resulted in rapid Native American population loss and tribal reorganization, at least in southern New England, southern and western Maine over the next 150 years.  The details of these changes are beyond the scope of this review, and in fact fill volumes of papers and books.

Arthur Spiess, Senior Archaeologist, Maine Historic Preservation Commission, January 2018

There is a significant difference between calendar years (as measured primarily by tree ring counts) and radiocarbon years at the end of the ice age.  13,000 calendar years “reads” as 11,000 years by radiocarbon dating. 11,200 calendar years "reads" as 10,000 radiocarbon, approximately. The difference between radiocarbon years and calendar years decreases toward the present to become insignificant for the purposes of broad culture history more recently than about 6000 years ago.

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