Subarctic Explorations

A professor and his anthropology students seek to uncover the five-millennia history of the Maritime Archaic people of Newfoundland

ALBANY, N.Y. (July 25, 2019) — The Maritime Archaic people thrived in harsh coastal conditions for nearly 5,000 years before disappearing around 1,000 B.C. Yet very little is known of their settlements, their social organizations, and how these were affected by ecological factors. A University anthropologist and three UAlbany students recently set about filling in the gaps on a two-week exploration in Newfoundland.

The research on the Maritime Archaic, led by Christopher Wolff, assistant professor of Anthropology, and Donald Holly of Eastern Illinois University, will have extensive implications for understanding how and when people first settled the easternmost region of North America, including its northern coasts and islands. The research is supported by a three-year NSF grant, which has been extended an additional year.

Wolff notes that this summer’s trip, from June 20 to July 3, was a relatively short one for the project (they’re normally 4-6 weeks). It involved taking soil samples from the Stock Cove site at the base of Trinity Bay on the east coast of the island.

The excavations will add to the understanding of the very first people to colonize the Eastern Subarctic and Arctic of North America. The Maritime Archaic created a way of life that allowed them to successfully occupy the entire coast and near interior of Newfoundland and Labrador, while maintaining relationships with contemporaneous cultures throughout the Far Northeast of the continent.

Two of the students on the trip were PhD candidates under Wolff. Amanda Samuels is collaborating with him on how the stone tool and other technology of the Beothuk people of Newfoundland changed as Europeans encroached upon their territory and ultimately drove them into a new way of life that was unsustainable, leading to their extinction.

Dana Yakabowskas is studying how prehistoric peoples of Newfoundland used various stone materials; she’ll use this knowledge to better understand how they utilized the island’s resources and interacted with one another.

The third student was Maddie Illenberg, an anthropology major and incoming senior.

Past student participants joining Wolff were Jessica Watson in 2016, a doctoral candidate under UAlbany Associate Professor Sean Rafferty, who recently finished her Ph.D., and current grad student John Garbellano in 2017.

“Basically,” said Wolff, “as one of the Northeast-focused archaeologists in the department, my students and I have been trying to understand ancient interactions that various people in the region — but with a focus on the more northern parts — had with their environment and how they changed through time.”

On this trip, his team also began working at another site on the shore of Red Indian Lake in central Newfoundland, as part of a new project investigating factors that led to the cultural extinction of the Beothuk in the face of European colonization and the Little Ice Age. Wolff plans to submit a grant application for this project in the fall.

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