Recent Indian Tradition: Newfoundland

The Recent Indian Tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador began approximately 2000 years ago on both sides of the Strait of Belle Isle. The connection between the Recent Indians and earlier precontact Indians of the province, such as the Maritime Archaic and Intermediate Indians, is not completely understood, if such a relationship existed at all.

Traditionally, the Recent Indian period on the Island was made up of the Cow Head, Beaches & Little Passage complexes. The Cow Head complex (ca.1900-1000 B.P.) appears on the Island around the start of the Recent Indian time period. Recent research suggests they are not part of the Newfoundland Recent Indian cultural continuum. It is the Beaches & Little Passage complexes that form this cultural continuum where the culture of the Beaches complex slowly becomes the Little Passage complex. But the names of those complexes do little to reveal that they are related. I think it makes more sense to use names that do show this relationship and I suggest using early and late Newfoundland Recent Indians.

On the Island, the Recent Indian Tradition can be sub-divided temporally into an early Newfoundland Recent Indian period (ca.1900-800 B.P.) and a late Newfoundland Recent Indian period (ca.800 B.P.-European Contact), based on projectile point styles. These two periods form a cultural continuum from the precontact to the post-European contact period. The early period projectile points are large and side-notched and were probably used as spear heads, whereas the late period projectiles are predominantly smaller, corner-notched or stemmed and may have been arrowheads. The technological-cultural pattern of the early period is known as the Beaches complex (early Newfoundland Recent Indian) (ca.1800-800 B.P.), while that of the late period is known as the Little Passage complex (late Newfoundland Recent Indian) (ca.800 B.P.-European contact). The Beothuk are not part of the precontact Recent Indian Tradition, but rather are descendants of the people of this tradition. The last known Beothuk Indian, Shanawdithit, died in 1829.

Early Recent Indian bifaces are on top, the bottom right two bifaces are late Recent Indian. The biface on the left of the bottom row is transitional between the two.

Cow Head complex Recent Indians

Most of the 25 known Cow Head complex sites, named after the type-site near the community of Cow Head, are on the Northern Peninsula or in Bonavista Bay. This modest number of sites is the primary reason we have a limited understanding of this Recent Indian complex. Another impediment is that most of the known sites are lithic workshops. Thus, our sample of Cow Head complex material culture is primarily unfinished and broken tools.

Location of Cow Head complex type site.

The locations of the known Cow Head components on or near the coast implies that maritime resources were an integral part of their subsistence-settlement patterns, but certainly terrestrial food resources would also have been exploited. Archaeologists accept that a generalized terrestrial-marine subsistence pattern was used by all Newfoundland and Labrador Recent Indians.  We have no reason to suspect that the people of the Cow Head complex followed a different pattern.

A lithic assemblage from a Cow Head complex site typically includes large ovate, lanceolate, and bi-pointed bifaces and broad bladed side-notched or broad stemmed points. Their assemblages also contain blade-like flakes, small flake end scrapers and large flake scrapers.

Cow Head complex broad bladed expanding stemmed bifaces, from the Cow Head site.
Cow Head complex bi-pointed bifaces, from the Cow Head site.
Cow Head complex large flake scrapers, from the Cow Head site.
Cow Head complex lanceolate bifaces, from the Cow Head site.

Until recently, it was suspected that the Cow Head complex may have been ancestral to the rest of the Newfoundland Recent Indian groups. Developments in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador Recent Indian archaeology in the last 15 years are drawing a clearer picture of the precontact relationships within the Recent Indian cultures of these areas. Specifically, it now seems that the people of the Cow Head complex are probably not the progenitors of the early/late Newfoundland Recent Indians on the Island.

early Newfoundland Recent Indians (Beaches complex Recent Indians)

This complex, named after its type-site The Beaches (DeAk-01) in Bonavista Bay, is better understood than the Cow Head complex primarily because there are 40 known sites containing early Newfoundland Recent Indian material culture. The locations of these sites vary from the outer exposed coast, to the islands, and inner bays of Newfoundland. There are also Beaches components at deep interior locations of the Island like Red Indian Lake.

Location of Beaches complex type site.

The specific subsistence-settlement pattern employed by the people of the early Newfoundland Recent Indian complex is unknown, but the ability to be flexible when adapting to the environment and prey species is a key to being a successful hunter-gatherer. Recent Indians throughout the province would have followed the local resources very closely, adapting as necessary using any combination of the above strategies in a subsistence-settlement system that can be best described as generalized.

Unfortunately, like the Cow Head complex, our knowledge of the early Newfoundland Recent Indian complex material culture is limited primarily to lithics. A typical early Newfoundland Recent Indian complex stone tool assemblage contains side-notched, and to a lesser extent, corner-notched points; linear flakes; triangular projectile point preforms or knives; lanceolate bifaces and thumbnail scrapers. These tools are often made from coarse grain black and brown cherts and local rhyolites.

Spot find Recent Indian artifacts on display at the Deer Lake Visitor Centre. Top, middle three are late Recent Indian, bottom five are early Recent Indian.

late Newfoundland Recent Indians (Little Passage complex Recent Indians)

In 1979 and 1980, the L’Anse a Flamme site (CjAx-01) on the south coast of Newfoundland, near the community of Gaultois was excavated. Based on the recovery of a then unique lithic assemblage from the site, the Little Passage complex was defined; the name of the complex was based on a nearby body of water. We have since recognized 61 late Newfoundland Recent Indian sites in the same general areas as the sites containing early Newfoundland Recent Indian complex components, namely, inland, outer exposed coasts, islands, and inner bays.

Location of Little Passage complex type site, L’Anse a Flamme.

Like the other Newfoundland and Labrador Recent Indians, archaeologists believe that the late Newfoundland Recent Indians practiced a generalized terrestrial-marine subsistence pattern.

Late Newfoundland Recent Indian tool kits contain corner-notched projectile points that decrease in size over time and become small stemmed flake points as we get to the post-European contact period. Along with the decrease in size comes a decrease in manufacturing complexity over time; triangular bifaces that are about the same size as the projectile points; small scrapers; retouched and blade-like or linear flakes, and large flake side scrapers that has been suggested link them to the early Recent Indians. The people of the late Newfoundland Recent Indian complex preferred to make their stone tools from fine-grained green, grey-green and blue-green cherts. This preference compares interestingly with the preferences of the Recent Indian people of Labrador for a specific lithic material they used extensively which is found in northern Labrador called Ramah chert. It has been suggested that the Labrador Recent Indians were so reliant on Ramah chert that it must have had some spiritual significance to them, including marking their identity as a people.

Late Newfoundland Recent Indian arrowheads.


Archaeologists initially thought that the stone tools of the early Newfoundland Recent Indians represented the direct ancestors of the Beothuk Indians. However, during the excavation of the L’Anse a Flamme site and other Recent Indian sites on the south coast of the Island, late Newfoundland Recent Indian material was found above early Newfoundland Recent Indian material, suggesting that the Little Passage complex material was younger and therefore the immediate precontact ancestor for the Beothuk.

Along with this evidence from the south coast, later excavations at Boyd’s Cove (DiAp-03) and Inspector Island (DiAq-01), in Notre Dame Bay, helped to clarify who were the Beothuk ancestors. The Boyd’s Cove site demonstrates the link between the precontact Newfoundland Recent Indians and the historically known Beothuk Indians and the Inspector Island site was one of the first sites with radiocarbon results showing that the late Newfoundland Recent Indian complex were the Beothuk ancestors.

Boyd’s Cove contains three Indian occupations; an early Recent Indian occupation on the bottom, a late Recent Indian occupation in the middle and a Beothuk occupation on top. The early Newfoundland Recent Indian component was dated to 960+/-50 B.P.. This was the first date that established the antiquity of this group and is definitive proof that they are too old to be the direct Beothuk progenitor. As well, fourteen late Newfoundland Recent Indian projectile points and four triangular bifaces have been found with or above post-contact period (European derived) artifacts at Boyd’s Cove. Those post-contact period artifacts included various iron objects reworked into Beothuk spear points, Beothuk bone pendants, glass trade beads, European ceramics and nails. These discoveries at Boyd’s Cove confirm that the late Newfoundland Recent Indians continued into the post-contact period as the Beothuk.

Excavation of several housepits at Boyd’s Cove.

At Inspector Island, two radiocarbon dates of 610+/-60 and 690+/-40 B.P. firmly place the late Newfoundland Recent Indians between the early Newfoundland Recent Indians and the post-contact Beothuk.

Boyd’s Cove and Inspector Island are just two transitional sites, showing the slow cultural transition from the late Newfoundland Recent Indians into the post-contact Beothuk. These sites also show that there was no temporal gap between the late Newfoundland Recent Indians and the post-contact Beothuk.

Inspector Island (DiAq-01), the late Recent Indian occupation was on the terrace and beach in front of the cabin.

6 thoughts on “Recent Indian Tradition: Newfoundland

    1. Thanks.
      We can only hope. The preservation at Port au Choix is a fluke, it just so happens that the folks who lived there set everything up on a limestone beach which helped neutralize some of the acid in the soil and helped with the preservation.

  1. I am wondering since the latest DNA evidence suggest that Mi’kmaq and Beothuk share DNA origins as descendants of Maritime archaic people, and the Recent Indians are ancestors of the Beothuks, are they not also ancestors of the Mi’kmaq on the Island? Of course there were others who migrated from the mainland due to migration, but I’m just wondering.

    1. Hi Paul
      Thanks for the question. I am not sure what DNA evidence you are referring to that shows that Mi’kmaq and Beothuk share DNA. To my knowledge there has never been such a study. Can you tell me what you are referring to?

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