Thursday, March 28, 2013

Lost Beothuk nation’s religion takes flight

The Indigenous Beothuk of Newfoundland disappeared as a culture during the early nineteenth century and had little positive interaction with Europeans before this time. As a result, very little is now known regarding Beothuk religious life and belief.

Sacred cosmology

University of Alberta researcher Todd Kristensen and his U.S. co-author Donald Holly have drawn on available ethnohistoric records, an analysis of burial sites in addition to the funerary objects themselves to offer an interpretation of Beothuk sacred cosmology that places birds at the centre of their belief system.

These birds were  at the centre of their complex religious belief system that revered the winged creatures as “spiritual messengers” that carried the souls of the dead to an “island afterlife.”

The remarkable revelations about the vanished culture, the 19th-century eclipse of which remains one of the central tragedies of Canadian history, are detailed in a paper published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

Violent encounters

After Anglo-Italian explorer John Cabot’s landmark voyage to Newfoundland in 1497, the indigenous Beothuk clashed constantly with a succession of settlers and colonisers from Portugal, France and Britain in the following four centuries.

According to some reports, the Beothuk may also have been the so-called “skraelings” who had violent encounters as Norse explorers made their first contacts with indigenous Americans. By the time these sources were recorded, Skræling was the common term Norse Greenlanders used for the Thule people, the ancestors to the modern Inuit.

Once numbering as many as 5,000 people, the Beothuk population was ravaged by diseases introduced to the future Canada by European settlers. An artistically gifted Beothuk woman named Shanawdithit, the last known survivor of her people, died in St. John’s in 1829, bringing to an end a cohesive culture.

Happy Island

The new study refers to historical records that Shanawdithit once referred to a “happy island” afterworld that somehow figured prominently in the Beothuk’s belief system.

The distribution of archaeological sites that are attributed to the Little Passage complex, seems to confirm the coastal orientation of the Beothuk who followed on from this prehistoric culture. There appears to have been a direct correlation between the settlement pattern that favoured sheltered bays, inlets and archipelagos offering strategic access to a full range of resources, with birds acting as a significant part of the diet.

Sea birds such as the Arctic tern and the black guillemot and the now extinct great auk provided both “food and food for thought” for the ancient Newfoundland inhabitants.

Kristensen feels that the ongoing research is important because “there are no modern Beothuk people to say that this is is what we believed in, and this is the story that we should share.” Archaeologists become the one group of people who can tell the Beothuk story.

No other object is as closely associated with the Beothuk today as the enigmatic bone pendant. Pendants were often fashioned from caribou bones that were split, ground down into thin tabular forms and then exquisitely carved, engraved and coated with red ochre.

A connection between burials and birds

Of the 28 recorded Beothuk burial sites in Newfoundland, 11 are known to have yielded bone pendants, and numerous other burials likely housed pendants prior to extensive looting in the 19th and 20th centuries. Pendants have even been found at three suspected burial sites that lack human remains, which may represent burials in lieu of a body (which may have been lost at sea). It is obvious these well worn, repaired and deeply personal items played a major role in the life of a Beothuk individual.

Beothuk pendants come in a variety of shapes and designs and the authors suspect that many represent birds or parts of their anatomy; some bone pendants seem to represent primary wing feathers while other are clearly feet, others relate to complete, but stylised diving birds. Given that the Beothuk conceived of the afterlife as an island, it is perhaps not surprising that with only one exception, all known Beothuk burial sites occur on the coast as a suitable departure point to a distant happy island, and of the 28 recorded coastal burial sites, 22 are even located on small islands.

The Beothuk experienced birds daily and must have acquired an intimate knowledge of bird’s flying, diving and swimming as well as the cyclical nature of bird migration. Kristensen feels that the Beothuk must have incorporated this into belief systems regarding the dead – leaving for new life.

A solid manifestation of this bird cosmology are the bone pendants,which use birds to relate to the transformation between life and death. Bird pendants and even parts of birds are clearly associated with burials, which suggest connects birds to a belief in soul flight acting as spiritual messengers to carry the dead to the afterlife of the Beothuk their mysterious  ‘happy island’.

Past Horizons. 2013. “Lost Beothuk nation’s religion takes flight”. Past Horizons.. Posted: February 17, 2013. Available online:

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