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Maine History Online

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To 1500 People of the Dawn

Maine's first human arrivals wandered a boggy land of sedges and grasses punctuated by scattered stands of birch, willow, alder, and spruce. Wooly mammoths roamed the grassy plains, herds of mastodons browsed on the emerging coniferous forest, and giant beaver built homes in the vast bogs and wetlands.

Since the retreat of the glaciers some 12,000 years ago, Maine has been a crossroads of culture and a seat of innovation. Whether its prehistory reveals a single evolving culture as some believe, or a succession of new arrivals, the changing way of life suggests a people adapting in innovative ways to new environmental challenges.

Maine forms the neck of a huge geographic formation known as the Maritime Peninsula, stretching north from New England to the Gaspé. The two features that define this peninsula, the St. Lawrence River and the coastal plain, served as great highways connecting Maine to cultures far to the west and south and bringing periodic infusions of new ideas and new people.

This cultural dynamism was stimulated by profound environmental changes in the post-glacial landscape. Concentrations of forest, lake, river, and ocean resources changed dramatically over the millennia, and people responded with new technologies, foodways, and social organizations.

Viewing changes over the millennia between glacial retreat and European arrival – the two great benchmarks in Maine prehistory – shows this cultural dynamism in high relief.

The story of Maine begins with the glaciers. About 2 million years ago the world's climate began to change, bringing a long period of glacial advance and retreat that lasted, geologically speaking, almost up to the present.

At its maximum 18,000 to 20,000 years ago, the ice cap was as much as 5,000 feet thick, leaving only the tip of Katahdin exposed – a tiny rock island in a vast sea of ice.

Stone-age hunters called Paleoindians developed a distinctive stone spear-tip known as the Clovis or Folsom point about 20,000 to 30,000 years ago.

Clovis technology exists throughout North America. Evidence of Clovis points in the Northeast date to about 11,500 years ago.

As the ice retreated about 12,000 years ago, it left behind a classic deglaciated landscape, with rounded gravelly hills, wide, U-shaped valleys, numerous lakes and bogs, thin soils of clay, silt, and sand, and an abundance of stones and boulders.

Maine's first human arrivals wandered a boggy land of sedges and grasses punctuated by scattered stands of birch, willow, alder, and spruce. Wooly mammoths roamed the grassy plains, herds of mastodons browsed on the emerging coniferous forest, and giant beaver built homes in the vast bogs and wetlands.

Although the archaeological record is far from complete, it suggests a scattering of small, mobile hunting bands. The Paleoindian's signature tool was a large fluted projectile point mounted on a spear and launched with a spear-thrower, or atlatl.

In Maine, archaeologists have found several distinctive variations on this point, suggesting an exchange of ideas and a rapid adaptation to changing environmental conditions. Given their size, these spear points hint at epic battles with mammoths and mastodons, and several Algonquian stories contain dim memories of elephant-like monsters.

But scraps of caribou bone in the archaeological record suggest these more modest creatures as the major item on the Paleoindian menu, along with small mammals and birds taken where pioneer forests offered respite in the tundra landscape. Caribou concentrate in herds in fall and migrate to breeding areas, and these predictable seasonal movements drew small, kinship-related Paleoindian bands in their wake.

The largest collection of Paleoindian artifacts in this area is the Vail site on the Magalloway River in western Maine. Now flooded by the Aziscohos dam, the site yielded some 4,000 tools, primarily scrapers, fluted points, wedges, and cutters, suggesting a seasonal encampment occupied over several centuries. Nearby hills constricted the migrating herds and gave hunters an opportunity to intercept them.

Similarities between the tools found here and those from sites in Nova Scotia and eastern Massachusetts imply a basic cultural unity across this vast Maritime Peninsula, but the Vail site also contained exotic artifacts, made of materials from as far away as western Vermont, New York, and Pennsylvania. Along their seasonal migrations, Paleoindian hunters undoubtedly met other wandering bands, with whom they exchanged gifts.

Distinctive Clovis points and other Paleoindian artifacts from around 10,000 to 8,000 years ago, diminished. This happened during the transition from tundra to boreal forest, suggesting that the new "low diversity" environment triggered a radical change in their subsistence activity.

Paleoindians lived in a rapidly changing world where the tundra grasses gave way to open woodlands, and then forests of birch, spruce, and pine. They no doubt took advantage of a variety of resources, but the newly arrived species of fish, plants, birds, and small game had not settled into reliable patterns, and thus the Paleoindians depended primarily on the moving herds of caribou – a choice that tied them to the fate of the tundra and its host species.

The Early Archaic time period, presents an equally thin archaeological record. With upland game scarce and the coastal and estuarial systems flooded by rising sea levels, Maine presented a harsh environment for human settlement.

Earlier archaeologists believed the forests were mostly evergreens, but new studies suggest a richer and more varied scene, with oak-grove, wetland, and flood-plain micro-environments more accommodating to human needs. Perhaps Maine was peopled by small hunting-fishing-foraging bands exploiting niches such as these.

As for the Paleoindians, they either followed the caribou northward, intermingled with a new people from the Great Lakes region, or remained on site and developed a new, more complex subsistence pattern adapted to small mammals, plants, moose, and fish. Recent researchers favor continuity more than replacement.

In the Archaic period, 10,000 to 7,000 years ago, deciduous trees characteristic of a more temperate climate began moving northward, increasing the biodiversity of the Maine forest. As temperatures warmed some 7,000 years ago, oaks became the dominant species.

The change in climate and vegetation affected food sources, lifestyles, and culture. Indigenous populations began shifting from somewhat random hunting and gathering to moving seasonally to specific and regular locations to hunt, fish and collect food. A stable environment enabled these changes.

Also during this period, archaic peoples manufactured new cutting tools with sharp edges maintained by whetstones and processed a variety of plants by grinding, milling, boiling, and roasting; they stored seeds, roots, and nuts for winter use and cooked plants and meat by plunging heated stones into water contained in a woven basket.

Like Paleoindians, they hunted caribou, but also relied on deer, bear, beaver, muskrat, otter, birds, and turtles. As runs of anadromous fish became more predictable and abundant, they caught them with spears and in brush weirs and nets of root or bark. On the coast they gathered shellfish and captured sea birds, ducks, geese, and the now-extinct great auk.

The Maritime phase of the Archaic culture, known in Maine as the Moorehead phase, brought hunting of seals, walruses, porpoises, migratory fish, sea birds, bottom fish, and swordfish. Maritime Archaic peoples used heavy woodworking tools to construct large dugout canoes and deployed these vessels far out at sea harpooning swordfish and traveling across a 100-mile gulf to Nova Scotia.

The Maritime Archaic also includes some of the most mysterious and controversial people in the Northeast: the so-called Red Paint People, who appeared on the scene between 5,000 and 3,500 years ago.

The most intriguing feature of this culture is the use of large quantities of iron oxide sprinkled across grave vaults that included ritual slate spear-points, lance tips, charms, amulets, and ornaments. This unusual mortuary ritualism implies a growing social complexity in Archaic society – and evidence of an extensive trade network to Massachusetts, Eastern New York, Labrador, and Newfoundland.

When the last glacier melted and the sea flooded, numerous changes occurred. Up to about 8,000 years ago, the Gulf of Maine was a huge inland basin called the DeGeer Sea, with only a narrow opening to the Atlantic. When the estuaries, flats, barrier beaches, and salt marshes were flooded, the coastal zone became unproductive.

Sea levels became stable only about 5,000 years ago, and as the Gulf opened up, the flow of water brought more fish and shellfish and Archaic people were quick to adapt to the new resources.

Between 4,700 and 3,500 years ago, Maine experienced the effects of another worldwide warming trend that brought deciduous mast-bearing trees to central Maine. These changes are reflected in artifacts like mortars, pestles, and other grinding implements used for processing and preserving seeds, nuts, berries, and roots – tools that may have prepared the way for a horticultural revolution at the end of this period.

With new food sources, the population grew. People began making and using a small stemmed projectile point that became the single most numerous class of artifacts in the region, which have been found on riverbanks, lake and pond shores, near bogs, on meadow margins, beside springs, along the coast, at the heads of estuaries, and near stone quarries. Late Archaic peoples took advantage of the newly diverse food chain – from shellfish soup to nuts.

As the climate changed again, so too did the flora, fauna, animals and the types of tools people made and used. After about 3,700 years ago, the tool became broad-blade spear points. But climate changes also caused the population to move farther away and little archaeological record exists from about 3,500 to 2,700 years ago.

Then, the Early Woodland Period brought rapid cultural changes with the appearance of agriculture, ceramics, and birch-bark canoes, an expansion of trade networks, and more intense exploitation of marine and coastal resources.

All this gave rise to more permanent settlements on the coast, the islands, and along the lower river stems. The most visible evidence of some of these changes are the shell middens, trash heaps of shells, most notable on the Damariscotta Peninsula.

The shells preserved other organic refuse, leaving evidence of a varied cuisine made up of nuts and berries, waterfowl, deer, moose, bear, beaver, muskrat, porcupine, dog, wolf, fox, otter, marten, fisher, skunk, raccoon, bobcat, alewives, finned fish, shellfish, sturgeon, seal, porpoise, an extinct species of sea mink, and assorted other gleanings from this diverse Maine landscape.

People also made fired-clay ceramics that replaced wood, bark, or woven bowls in Maine around 2,700 years ago, a change that meant significant improvements in food processing and diet and offered better storage possibilities, making villages more permanent.

Development of the bark canoe extended the hunter's reach into the game-rich upper tributaries and expanded networks of trade and exchange. The Micmac of eastern Maine and New Brunswick, the most formidable mariners of the period, constructed huge canoes some 28 feet long with hogged gunwales amidship to keep them rigid in the ocean swells.

In addition to shellfish exploitation, ceramics, and canoes, Woodland Indians developed new projectile points with deep corner and side notches and a broad array of cutting, scraping, grinding, and hammering tools.

It was a Woodland people known as the Wabanaki who encountered the Europeans when they arrived on the Maine coast at the beginning of the 16th century. Wabanaki – the People of the Dawn – were part of an Algonquian confederation stretching from New England west to the Great Lakes.

Whether the Wabanaki developed from the original migrants to Maine or from the more recent Susquehanna Tradition is difficult to say, but there are significant cultural threads running through these innumerable changes in culture, climate, and environment.

As various societies grew, flourished, and faded, they passed this cultural legacy down. The arrival of Europeans brought one more change, albeit large, in a long series of alterations for the indigenous peoples of Maine.

Wabanaki oral traditions, especially the stories of Gluskabe, explain the origins of the native population and the transition from the huge animals – like the giant beaver in the era of wooly mammoths – to the creatures now known.

The stories explain the relationships of the native peoples to the world around them as well as offering moral lessons. These oral traditions do much to enhance the prehistoric record when written communications did not exist and when artifacts and other archaeological activities tend to be the major source of information.

Geographically, the Eastern Abenaki fell into two broad categories: those living in the oak-chestnut-hickory region from southern New England to the Saco River, and the northern and inland Indians occupying the coniferous forest.

Indians to the south of Maine began cultivating corn, beans, and squash around 3,000 years ago. Maize came to Maine about 1,000 years ago and supplied about 65 percent of the Woodland Indians' caloric needs. Given the risks of crop failure in colder climates, those east of the Saco chose to devote their energies to hunting and gathering rather than farming.

In southern Maine this new food source, coupled with a rich coastal environment, triggered a pronounced population increase that put pressure on the soil, beaver colonies, and clam beds.

The Abenaki also had many other resources at hand. Recent research indicates a complex seasonal movement radiating out from year-round village sites near the coast. At the coast, nearby estuaries provided fish, shellfish, and waterfowl, and islands promised a feast of shellfish, lobsters, and weir-trapped fish.

This dense array of resources probably kept people near the coast most of the year. But the Maine environment provided no single resource that would sustain a village – coastal or upland – through all four seasons, so like their predecessors, the Abenaki moved in seasonal rounds seeking subsistence in a constantly changing landscape.

The Abenaki summer was a time of maximum mobility, as bands or families dispersed and regrouped for hunting, freshwater and ocean fishing, foraging, and tending crops. During fall women remained in the village smoking lobster for storage and preparing berries by pounding, crushing, boiling, and drying them.

The fall passenger pigeon migration again filled the larder, as did the fall migrations of waterfowl and eels and the harvest of butternuts, chestnuts, and acorns. During late fall men hunted black bear, beaver, deer, moose, and squirrel, and in winter, deer and beaver.

In May, those in southern Maine planted maize, beans, and squash, then moved upriver to catch anadromous fish, to boil syrup in the maple and birch groves, and to catch passenger pigeons on their spring northward migrations.

Father Pierre Biard, a missionary on Mt. Desert Island in 1613-1614, recalled that in mid-winter Indians in the Penobscot Bay hunted beaver, otter, moose, bear, and caribou. If the hunt was successful, they lived "in great abundance as princes and kings;" if not, they were "greatly to be pitied, and often die of starvation."

In mid-March, anadromous fish made their way up the rivers to spawn, and food was once again abundant; in May they moved to the coast to gather shellfish and catch cod, and in September they withdrew to the "little rivers" where eels spawned. October and November saw a second hunt for moose and beaver. In other locations, there are some variations in the seasonal rotations, available resources, and possibly individual taste.

In agricultural villages, men hunted, trapped, cleared and burned the woods, and took care of diplomatic and military excursions. Women fished and foraged for food items, herbs, and medicinals. They gathered firewood, cooked, processed food, cared for the children, and produced domestic items like clothing, leather, woven mats, baskets, and shelters.

Women also did most of the agricultural work, using shells or horseshoe crab carapaces for trowels and deer horns for hoes. Their squash plants carpeted the field below the maize stocks, discouraging weeds and protecting the soils from erosion, while beans climbed the stocks and helped return nitrogen to the soils.

Settlement patterns, subsistence strategies, and Indian technologies were in great flux in the centuries prior to European arrival. Traditionally, river systems defined the territorial claims of each tribe, but in the horticultural sections of New England this watershed system was breaking down, due to demographic pressures and a more sedentary social organization based on agriculture.

Indians were crossing watersheds as much as traveling up them. When the Europeans arrived in Maine in the early 1500s, they triggered vast changes in Indian settlement patterns, subsistence, and technology.

Maine's Abenaki entered a new and in many ways more tragic era, but their adaptive strategies served them well, as they continue to do today.