The Beothuk are the aboriginal people of the island of
Newfoundland. They were Algonkian-speaking hunter-gatherers who
probably numbered less than a thousand people at the time of
European contact. The Beothuk are the descendants of a Recent Indian
culture called the Little Passage Complex.
Beothuk Carved Bone Objects.
Original artifacts housed in the Newfoundland Museum.
Courtesy of Dr. Ralph Pastore, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland.
The arrival of migratory European fishermen in the 16th
century may have provided new opportunities for the Beothuk.
These fishermen erected stages, flakes and wharves during the
summer fishery, but after they left the island to return to
Europe, they left behind nails, lost fish hooks, and scraps of
iron and kettle. Evidence from a number of Beothuk sites
indicates that the Beothuk picked up these metal objects and
reworked them into arrowheads, lance points, harpoon end blades,
awls and hide scrapers.
| Spoon, saw and scissors from a Beothuk site
on the Exploits River.
The Beothuk often acquired metal objects like these by visiting abandoned
European fishing posts. Reworking the metal, the Beothuk were able
to construct their own traditional hunting tools which included
arrowheads and harpoon tips.
Reproduced by permission of J. A. Tuck, Atlantic Archaelogy Ltd.
From Dr. Ralph Pastore, Shanawdithit's People: The Archaelogy of the
Beothuk (St. John's, Newfoundland: Atlantic Archaelogy Ltd., ©1992) 61.
Everywhere else in North America, native people were usually
eager to trade furs for metal cutting and piercing tools. The
Beothuk, however, had the unusual opportunity to acquire such
goods without having to exchange furs for them.
This meant that they did not have to modify their
traditional way of life by expending effort in the winter
hunting fur-bearing animals such as lynx, marten, and the like--animals
that provided little in the way of edible meat.
Similarly, unlike the Micmac of the mainland, the Beothuk did
not have to congregate at designated harbours to await the
arrival of fur traders. This strategy often meant that the
assembled Indians would quickly exhaust local supplies of game.
By contrast, the Beothuk could make a quick trip to an abandoned
European fishing station to acquire the desired metal goods.
The Beothuk acquired great skill at refashioning these
objects into useful tools which would have considerably increased
the efficiency of their hunting technology. Iron arrow heads were
much tougher than those of stone and were easily re-sharpened.
Iron harpoon blades would also have been much more effective than
those tipped with stone.
From left to right:
iron projectile point (probably an arrow point), bone
harpoon, and bone harpoon with iron blade. Original artifacts
housed in the Newfoundland Museum.
of Dr. Ralph Pastore, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland.
While the Beothuk were able to coexist with, and probably to
benefit from, a migratory fishery, the beginning of year-round
settlement in the 17th century meant the onset of drastic change.
As the French established a base at Placentia, and English
settlement extended from Conception Bay to Trinity Bay and then
Bonavista Bay, the Beothuk withdrew from European contact.
Lacking the contacts with traders, missionaries and Indian agents
that were characteristic of the mainland experience, the Beothuk
became increasingly isolated.
After the middle of the 18th century, as the growth of English
settlement increased, the Beothuk were increasingly denied
access to the vital resources of the sea. In addition, the
emergence of Newfoundland furriers, or trappers, meant that the
Beothuk were now increasingly competing with white Europeans who
were familiar with the Newfoundland interior. The presence of
trap parts in 18th and early 19th-century Beothuk sites is clear
evidence of the Beothuk practice of taking furriers' traps--a
practice which inevitably brought retaliation.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the Beothuk were
reduced to a small refugee population living along the Exploits
River system and attempting to subsist on the inadequate
resources of the interior. Although a succession of Newfoundland
governors had, since the middle of the 18th century, attempted to
establish friendly contact with the Beothuk, it was probably too
late to change a pattern which had existed for perhaps 250 years.
Shanawdithit, the last known Beothuk, died in St. John's,
Newfoundland in 1829.
©1997, Ralph T. Pastore
Archaeology Unit & History Department
Memorial University of Newfoundland