Native Village 
Youth and Education News

April 1, 2013

Newfoundland birds were the heart of extinct Beothuk nation’s religion, study says
Condensed by Native Village

Newfoundland: Archeologists have shed stunning new light on the extinct Beothuk nation of Newfoundland.

New revelations about the vanished culture are detailed in a paper by Todd Kristensen, University of Alberta, and his U.S. co-author, Donald Holly, Eastern Illinois University. By studying carved pendants found in coastal burial sites, the men learned that birds were the center of the Beothuk's complex religion. Beothuks believed birds were “spiritual messengers” that carried the souls of the dead to an “island afterlife."

Kristensen says that the project is particularly significant because it “gives us a glimpse into Beothuk minds. We can begin to see how the Beothuk viewed the world around them — their beliefs about death, the afterlife and the role of animals and spiritual helpers.”

He added that the study’s findings are important because “there aren’t any modern Beothuk people to say, ‘This is what we believed in, and this is the story that we should share.’ Archeologists are one of the few people who can tell the Beothuk story.”

Beothuks inhabited the Newfoundland area for at least 1,000 years before Europeans arrived in the 15th century. They may also have been known as “skraelings.” The skraelings had violent encounters with Viking voyagers from Iceland and Greenland who settled -- then retreated -- from Newfoundland around 1000 A.D.

After John Cabot’s 1497 voyage to Newfoundland, the indigenous Beothuk clashed with colonizers from Portugal, France and Britain in the centuries that followed.

Once numbering 5,000 or more, the Beothuk population was ravaged by diseases introduced by European settlers. An artistically gifted Beothuk woman named Shanawdithit was the last survivor of her nation. She died in St. John’s in 1829.

Historical records show that Shanawdithit once referred to a “happy island” afterworld that figured prominently in the Beothuk’s belief system.

“We scoured historical documents and found a handful of sentences about Beothuk religion,” said Kristensen. “No one really knows what the Beothuk believed in.

“But we found out, surprisingly, that they ate a lot of birds, which was odd because we had thought that they lived mostly on caribou and seal. From there, we began to wonder that if birds were an important food, what other dimensions of Beothuk life might they show up in?”

Analyses of objects from Beothuk burials showed that most of the patterns etched in caribou-bone pendants were inspired by the webbed feet and feathers of seabirds.

“Sure enough, when we looked at those burials, we started to see bird shapes in their funeral goods,” said Kristensen. “Why depict seabirds when you’ve got bears and wolves and seals and whales? While a waddling sea duck might not appear to be a glorious animal, these birds were powerful to the Beothuk because they moved easily from one world to the next — water to air.”

Seabirds such as the arctic tern and black guillemot provided both “food and food for thought” for ancient Newfoundland inhabitants, the authors state. Another bird central to their culture, the penguin-like great auk, was also a plentiful source eggs and meat.  But the great auks, like the Beothuk, were extinct by the mid-19th century.

“Given the sheer presence of birds in the environment, their importance in Beothuk diet, and the unique role of birds in Beothuk activities — such as dangerous voyages to rookeries — we suggest that birds provided a plethora of source material for Beothuk belief systems,”
say Kristensen and Holly.  “Notwithstanding the probable significance of other animals to the Beothuk, we suggest that seabirds commanded a prominent place in Beothuk ideology.”

They conclude that the Beothuk believed their souls required “help from animals that can move through those worlds” of water and air to reach their culture’s idea of heaven.

“We thought it was such a unique system,” added Kristensen. “But when you think about it, just about every culture in the world thinks about the afterlife place that’s either above or below us — heaven or hell — so we do compartmentalize our worlds in this kind of ladder of movement. The Beothuk did that the same way.”

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