The mysterious Beothuk of Newfoundland

Eyeview
By David Charbonneau
November 23, 2017 - 5:00am

KAMLOOPS — Recent DNA tests have only deepened the mystery surrounding the Beothuk people of Newfoundland.

The Beothuk were reclusive compared to other Indigenous Newfoundland people like the Mi’kmaq. Their solitary nature may have contributed to their extinction.

Like all Indigenous people, the Beothuk had good reasons to avoid the settlers. The last Beothuk, Shanawdithit, died on June 6, 1829. Shanawdithit’s aunt died in captivity nine years earlier. Her aunt was captured by settlers in a raid on a Beothuk camp in which the aunt’s husband and infant child were killed.

The Beothuk thrived on marine mammals and other coastal resources but they were driven inland when the coast was occupied by Europeans. One thing that the DNA record reveals is the relatively poor land-based diet that resulted compared to the nutritional coastal marine food.

I first wrote of the Beothuk in 2014. After I wrote my column, I received an email from a man I’ll call George. He had lived in Newfoundland and thought that I might be interested in some things he had learned while living there. I was. We exchanged a number of emails and we had lengthy phone conversations.

George moved to Fogo Island years ago. It’s a small island off the coast of Newfoundland. He got to talking with the great grandson of John Soper Holmes, a settler on Fogo Island at the time of the Beothuk. The great grandson told George that Holmes had killed and buried twelve Indians. As the story went, the Beothuk had stolen gear from his oceanside camp. Holmes buried behind Indians behind his house. The mayor of Fogo told George that, as a child, he was told not to play up in the hills behind Holmes' house because Indians were buried there. George thought that these allegations should be investigated, and if true would contribute to the account of the Beothuk.

I thought so, too. I wrote up the story and sent it to George to look over before it was published. To my dismay, he recanted the story completely and I never published it. I suspect that George feared retributions from the close-knit Fogo community. I’m revealing details of the story for the first time but changed his name.

DNA analysis of the three distinct Indigenous groups of Newfoundland people deepens the mystery. Here’s what we know so far:

The last common ancestor of the three groups lived 10,000 years ago. The first group, the Maritime Archaic people, moved into Labrador and Newfoundland about 8,000 years ago and lived there until 3,200 years ago. Researchers speculate that a cooling climate made Newfoundland less hospitable to the Maritime Archaic people who were living off marine resources.

For the next 2,000 years, Paleo-Eskimo groups moved southward from the Arctic. They may have been the "skraelings" described by Norse explorers who tried to settle on the northwestern tip of Newfoundland around 1,000 A.D.

Then came the Beothuk. But from where they came is not clear. They are not related to any of the others. "I didn't expect that," said Vaughan Grimes, an archaeologist at Memorial University and a team member on the study. "I thought there would be more biological relationship between the groups. (Globe and Mail, October 12, 2017)"

I have a feeling that there are many more stories of the Beothuk to be told. Maybe Beothuk are not extinct but survive in the lineages of Newfoundland people walking around today? Stay tuned.

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