Department of Anthropology

Research Report: Christopher Wolff

Over the last 15 years, I have been conducting archaeological research into the prehistoric populations of eastern Newfoundland and Labrador. Most recently, with funding from the National Science Foundation, my collaborators and I, along with graduate students from the University at Albany, have been investigating the earliest peoples that settled on the island of Newfoundland. Archaeologists refer to these people as the “Maritime Archaic,” a name that refers to the fact that their main economic pursuits were marine species (e.g. seals, walruses, and fish). The Maritime Archaic people first occupied the Subarctic shores of eastern Canada over 8,000 years ago, but evidence of them on Newfoundland doesn’t appear until roughly 6,000 years ago. The reason for this long gap is unknown, particularly since the crossing to the island is relatively narrow and well within the capability of this ancient coastal population. Some archaeologists have suggested that the gap is much shorter, but we have yet to find evidence for earlier migrations. Our current research project is focused on addressing these issues and more broadly examining what role climate and ecological changes played in the peopling of the eastern Subarctic.

The center of our research has been the Stock Cove site of eastern Newfoundland. This important site has evidence of almost every culture that inhabited the island, giving us the ability to study all of these cultures at a single location. Our research uses a variety of techniques to learn about the processes of colonization and settlement and the ecosystems that hosted them. This includes traditional archaeological excavation, geophysical survey (ground penetrating radar and magnetometry), identification of insect remains, examination and chemical analyses of animal bones, study of stone tools, soil analysis, radiocarbon dating, and the utilization of environmental proxies (e.g. ocean cores, ice cores). These methods have led us to believe that Maritime Archaic peoples were in eastern Newfoundland at least 6,000 years ago, suggesting they were likely on parts of the island closer to the mainland much earlier. Exactly how early is part of our ongoing research; however, we know that at that time environmental conditions were warmer and more predictable. This may have facilitated colonization of the island.

Environmental data suggests that marine conditions, particularly the presence of sea ice, changed significantly over the last 6,000 years. Archaeologists believe these factors were very important in the colonization and abandonment of the region by prehistoric populations. When sea ice was present, vast harp seal herds in the region would have expanded and been an attractive resource to early peoples, as they have been historically; however, during warm periods when ice was absent, ancient peoples appear to abandon the island. This appears to be the record at Stock Cove, where people lived for centuries and then abandoned it when ecological conditions no longer supported their way of life. Our research examines these processes and how we might use them to better understand modern human interactions with eastern Subarctic ecosystems. These data may help us to predict changes in ecological conditions in the future and the possible impacts they may have on the various cultures who depend upon them.

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