Recent Indian Tradition: Labrador

This post is a continuation from two weeks ago.

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.

As on the Island of Newfoundland, the Recent Indian Tradition in Labrador is divided into an early and late period based on projectile point styles. The early Labrador Recent Indian projectile points are characteristically large and side-notched, whereas the projectiles of their descendants, the late Labrador Recent Indians, are predominantly smaller and corner-notched. The early Labrador Recent Indians are the people represented by the technological-cultural pattern of the Daniel Rattle complex (ca. 2000 B.P. – 1000 B.P.) and the late Labrador Recent Indians are the people represented by the technological-cultural pattern of the Point Revenge complex (ca. 1000 B.P. – 350 B.P.). Archaeologists believe that these precontact complexes form a two-thousand year old cultural continuum that represents the precontact Recent Indian Tradition in Labrador. The names of the complexes do little to reveal that the people of each complex are related. I think it makes more sense to use names that do show this relationship and I suggest using early and late Labrador Recent Indians.

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.
Early Labrador Recent Indian Ramah chert biface on the left, late Labrador Recent Indian Ramah chert biface on the right.

The late Labrador Recent Indian complex was defined based on the Winter Cove 4 site in the Hamilton Inlet area. It was the first complex defined within the Labrador portion of the Recent Indian Tradition. The early portion Labrador Recent Indian Tradition was defined based on the excavation of the Daniel Rattle site in the late 1980s by an archaeologist named Stephen Loring. In Loring’s view, “The application of a distinct complex designation serves primarily as a chronological device since there is no break in the cultural continuity…” (Loring 1992:343). Therefore, both complexes are dealt with together in the following section.

Excavation at the Daniel Rattle site. Pictured are the remains of a 4.5m x 1m raised linear hearth found inside of a 8m x 4m dwelling. The hearth was composed of ash, burnt bone, fire-cracked rocks and stone tools (Pastore 1992).
Location of the type sites for the Labrador Recent Indians.

Early/Late Labrador Recent Indians: Daniel Rattle and Point Revenge complexes

The 20 known early Labrador Recent Indian sites have been found in areas of diverse environmental and geographical conditions, ranging from the bottoms of sheltered bays and dense boreal forest localities to exposed headlands and outer islands. The 44 known late Recent Indian sites are found in similar areas: outer exposed headlands, islands and inner sheltered bays. The Labrador Recent Indians practiced a generalized economy of hunting marine and terrestrial animals and fishing, similar to the pattern followed by the Recent Indians of Newfoundland.

Early Labrador Recent Indian Ramah chert bifaces.

Within the stone tool kits of the Labrador Recent Indians there is a clear evolution in styles from early to late Labrador Recent Indians. Early Labrador Recent Indian tool assemblages consist of broad side-notched projectile points, in the late Labrador Recent Indian time period these become narrow corner-notched points and eventually flake points; large lanceolate, square-based bifaces evolve into small triangular bifaces; and large, unifacial end and side scrapers are eventually replaced by ‘thumbnail’ scrapers. Ground slate celts or spalls from the celts are also found in both complexes. A heavy reliance on Ramah chert is a defining characteristic of Labrador Recent Indians. In fact, Loring has referred to several Labrador Recent Indian sites as being literally paved with Ramah chert (1988:160).

Ramah chert flakes
Early Labrador Recent Indian Ramah chert bifaces.
Late Labrador Recent Indian Ramah chert bifaces.

Relationships

There is little doubt that the precontact Recent Indians in Newfoundland and Labrador were related. Their stone tool kits were practically identical, with the exception that the Labrador Recent Indians almost exclusively used Ramah chert for their tools. The transition from side notched dart point to corner notched arrow point seems to occur at the same time on both the island and in Labrador and they all seem to have followed a similar settlement-subsistence pattern.

Many archaeologists, including me in my 2002 thesis, have argued that the people of late Labrador Recent Indian complex became the Innu of Labrador and Quebec today similar to how the late Newfoundland Recent Indians transitioned to the Beothuk. Looking back on it now, unfortunately the evidence has yet to be found to verify this hypothesis.

Early Labrador Recent Indian Ramah chert biface.

On the Island, there is a clear transition from late Newfoundland Recent Indians to the Beothuk. We have numerous transitional sites such as Boyd’s Cove and Inspector Island and with these sites, we see there is no temporal gap between the late Newfoundland Recent Indians to the Beothuk. The same is not true in Labrador. To my knowledge, there are no transitional sites where we see late Labrador Recent Indians using stones in one level and in the next level we see the stones and an introduction of European goods. What we do have in Labrador are several late Labrador Recent Indian sites with a series of dates that suggest they lasted right up to and just into the period when Europeans make prolonged contact with this area of North America. For example at Winter Cove 4, there are dates of 465±45 (SI-1281) and 435±90 (SI-1282) based on charcoal from hearths. Those dates would be ~1450-1540 ad and 1435-1615 ad based on radiocarbon dating starting in 1960. At Daniel Rattle 2, there is a date of 425±65 (SI-5829) based on charcoal found in a bone concentration. That date would be ~1470-1600 ad. Finally, at Aly’s Head 1, the latest dated late Labrador Recent Indian site, charcoal from a hearth was dated to 325 ± 80 (SI-1276). That date would be ~1555-1715 ad. At all of these sites the only tools found were precontact stone artifacts. In comparison, the earliest dated Innu sites are listed as early 18th century but the culture on these sites is listed as “Innu?” meaning the archaeologist couldn’t positively say this was an Innu occupation. But, even if they could positively identify the Innu as the site occupants the sites artifact collection is made up of post European contact artifacts. There is no hint at a transition from stone to European goods. The earliest dated positively identified Innu sites are dated to the 19th century. There is no evidence for a transition and there is a temporal gap of ~100 years between the last of the late Labrador Recent Indians and the first Innu.

This is not to say that the late Labrador Recent Indians didn’t become the Innu, but rather that there remains a data gap; the transition from one to the other is not as convincing as has been stated. This is obviously an area which requires further research.

Loring, Stephen 1992  Princes and Princesses of Ragged Fame: Innu Archaeology and Ethnohistory in Labrador. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Massachusetts.

1988 Keeping Things Whole: Nearly Two Thousand Years of Indian (Innu) Occupation in Northern Labrador. In Boreal Forest and Sub-Arctic Archaeology, edited by C. S. Reid, pp.157-182. Ontario Archaeological Society, Occasional Publications of the London Chapter, No.6, London.

Pastore, Ralph  1992  Shanawdithit’s People. Atlantic Archaeology, St.John’s.

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10 thoughts on “Recent Indian Tradition: Labrador

  1. I really wish we had more organic artifacts from the Recent Indian periods in Newfoundland and Labrador. The lithic assemblages are so similar to each other that you’d think they were left by the same people, but the culture of the living Innu and Beothuk were very different. I wonder if they were always so different and we just happen to see the one aspect of their material culture that was the same, or if the Early and Late Recent Indian cultures on both the Island and Labrador have been diverging throughout their history from a common origin point?

    1. I agree we are missing a lot of stuff. Part of the reason why I think we see the culture of the living Innu and Beothuk as very different is because what we have of the Beothuk is what we are missing from the Innu. I mean from the Beothuk we have stuff from ~1500 to ~1800. But what we have from the Innu starts at the time the Beothuk vanish, ~1800. I suspect if we had the early Innu stuff we would realize they were not that different from the Beothuk. It’s not likely they went through 2000 years of a cultural continuum with similar changes and developments and then suddenly diverge. It all comes back to needing to fill in the data gap I was referring too.

      1. Filling that gap would help, but I think it would highlight a lot of differences as well. The example that’s fresh in my mind right now are arrows.

        I made a Beothuk/Little Passage arrow and an Innu/Point Revenge arrow last week. They were both tipped with identical stone points, but for the rest of the reconstruction I used ethnographic Innu and Beothuk arrows as references. The finished arrows, were about as different as arrows can be. The Innu made short spruce or tamarack arrows for short bows, fletched with 3 white ptarmigan feathers, using pitch for glue and some red paint on each end. The Beothuk made long pine arrows for longbows, fletched with 2 goose feathers and they were covered in red ochre. I don’t know if they used pitch or not – I haven’t seen it on any of their tools. The Beothuk reference arrows were probably a hundred years older than the Innu arrows, but each were part of a very different looking archery style. So different, in fact, that you wouldn’t really be able to use Innu arrows in Beothuk bows and vice-versa.

        It made me wonder what those arrows would have really looked like 1000 years ago. Maybe 1000 years ago, the identical stone points were hafted on identical arrows on Newfoundland and in Labrador and at some point since then they started to diverge. Maybe the Innu and Beothuk arrows had a common arrow ancestor that shared aspects of each of the historic examples and they evolved along their own discrete paths. Or maybe a Point Revenge Arrow and Little Passage arrow looked just as different 1000 years ago as they an Innu and Beothuk arrow looked during the historic period. The lithics alone don’t provide an answer.

      2. Wow. See you have an inside perspective on this stuff. I doubt anyone else knows about those differences. That is very interesting. Could the difference in styles be accounted for by raw material availability/differences? Trees in most of Labrador are smaller than on the island (?) resulting in the use of shorter bow and arrows?

        In the end you’re right, we need more than lithics. We also need to remember we are reconstructing these cultures based on a limited selection of their material culture. I think a lot of people forget that. Think about what an archaeologist from the future would say if they were excavating my house as opposed to yours if only the non-organic stuff survived?!?! Lots of metal etc in my house similar to what is in your’s, but you also would have a ton of stone artifacts. That would be a puzzle for an archaeologist 1000 years from now.

      3. I haven’t thought enough about it. Maybe the distribution of trees throughout the province influenced the evolution of bow and arrow technology. I believe other long bows show up in the Eastern Woodlands while shorter bows in the north and boreal forest seem to be the norm.

        I’ll post some picks of the reproduction arrows sometime soon. One of them is a gift for someone so I don’t want to spoil any surprises – but it fits really well with your last two blog posts, so I’m anxious to share it while the iron is hot.

  2. We can’t forget that differences in material goods do not always equate to significant social-cultural differences. Look at snowshoes for instance. If we look at the long narrow ones used by some Cree and compare those to the rounder ones used by other Cree and Innu, and this was the only evidence we had, we may come to the conclusion that they were different cultures…but they are not. This works in reverse as well.

      1. For more detail on the subject of late precontact Amerindian groups in Labrador:
        An overview of the continuum, on the coast and in the interior, was published in a Canadian Journal of Archaeology paper (link below) that presents the results of an interesting Daniel Rattle site in southern Labrador, but also compares and contrasts coastal and interior occupations, examines the flow of Ramah chert from Nain to Newfoundland, and offers some explanatory models. Note as well my support of the use of existing, long-held nomenclature for Labrador. (This paper was the basis for a 2011 CAA presentation and will be published in revised version through Avataq).

        M. Stopp
        FbAx-01: A Daniel Rattle Hearth in Southern Labrador CJA 32(1):96-127 (2008).
        at:
        http://www.canadianarchaeology.com/caa/publications/canadian-journal-archaeology/32/1

        Another paper that readers should be aware of is an overview by M. McCaffrey of work in La Grande River Basin (central Quebec-Labrador peninsula):

        M. McCaffrey
        Ancient Social Landscapes in the Eastern Subarctic. Hunter-Gatherer Archaeology as Historical Process, K.E. Sassaman and D.H. Holly Jr. eds. (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2011), 143-166.

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