A survey of known Beothuk sites along the Exploits River has turned up more than researchers anticipated. While making some additional finds in the known sites found 40 years ago, archeologist Laurie McLean and survey assistant have discovered several new sites in the past few summers.
Photo Credit: CBC

Uncovering secrets of Newfoundland’s extinct Beothuk people

For centuries, the Beothuk were the aboriginal inhabitants of the island of Newfoundland.

The woman beleived to be the last remaining Beothuk died in 1829.

Not nearly as much is known about them as is the case for other aboriginal groups across North America, but a recent trip to a site on the Exploits River in the interior of Newfoundland first located some 50 years ago has uncovered new finds. Laurie McLean is an archeologist with the not-for-profit Burnside Heritiage Foundation based in Bonavista Bay.


First contact with Europeans came around the year 1000 with the arrival of a group of Norse Vikings.

Archeologist Laurie McLean uses a bucket and dust pan to remove earth from the research site on an island in Newfoundland’s Exploits River. © CBC

That ended badly for the Norsemen. Much later, explorers and ever increasing numbers of fishermen from Europe came to Newfoundland’s shores. While some contacts with these later arrivals were peaceful, as time went on, more were not.

Unlike elsewhere in North America, the Beothuk tended to avoid contact and as Europeans occupied more and more of the coastal areas, the Beothuk retreated.

However, while there was violent conflict, a long-held theory that Europeans wiped the Beothuk  in acts of genocide, is now being replaced by the more likely theory that European diseases, and an almost self-imposed exile into the harsher and relatively unfamiliar interior environment  led to their decline and extinction.

Beothuk wigwam. First a pit is dug into the ground, a low interior wall built with dirt piled against it. Support poles then erecte and covered with bark and fir trees. A fire pit would be in the middle with shallow sleeping depression dug around the pit and probably covered with Fir for warmth. © Gov’t of Newfoundland and Labrador, art-David Preston Smith

It was the Beothuk habit of colouring themselves with red ochre that led to the term “red Indian”. That term, or “redskin” was later applied by Europeans to describe all native groups across North America and popularized by Hollywood westerns in films and TV. It is now considered perjorative and its use discouraged

ARcheologists are concerned that they are losing valuable sites as the shoreline erodes. In some cases as “the Beaches” shown here, funding to maintain earlier protactive barriers is lacking and the sites are being threatened and lost. Erosion in the Exploits river area, possibly the last refuge of the Beothuk, is also occuring. © CBC

McLean recently revisited some sites in the interior along the Exploits river near Grand Falls/Windsor where he and a colleague discovered more of a large communal hearth. He says this is an area of large presence of Beothuk, with about 150 sites on the shores of this long river.

Because little excavation has been done, there are a lot of unknowns about “communities” or family groups occupying house pits or encampments.

He notes that shoreline erosion is a serious concern and is taking away both the known sites and undoubtedly other sites not yet discovered.

He hopes to uncover evidence of the period which shows evidence of the Beothuk in decline, adding it’s important to excavate as many sites as possible before they are lost to erosion or development.

Heritage Newfoundland- Beothuk

Burnside Heritage Museum

Newfoundland Tourism- Burnside Heritage Museum

Categories: Indigenous, Society
Tags: ,

Do you want to report an error or a typo? Click here!

For reasons beyond our control, and for an undetermined period of time, our comment section is now closed. However, our social networks remain open to your contributions.