The Archaic Period ends and the Mi’kmaq arrive.

In my last post I talked about what I called the Archaic Period, spanning perhaps 8,000-3,000 years BP. It was a time of climate change which meant a change in how people fed themselves, clothed themselves and how and where they lived. This influenced the kinds of tools and weapons they needed to survive and making sense of all these artefacts and putting them into some kind of order is almost impossible with the present level of our knowledge.

I had explained that I preferred to call the period “Archaic” rather than Pre-Ceramic because the people most likely to have populated the Island were a group called by that name, and also because they represented a time in between two eras – the Palaeo and the coming of the Mi’kmaq, what American archaeologists prefer to include in their Woodland period. One could also call this period “The Middle Age”, because that’s what it is, but that would probably just add confusion to those who had had an education in European history.

While the Archaic people stretched down the Atlantic coast, in time, other people approached the region from Quebec and areas below it in the United States. These are called the Laurentians and, while they did not appear to come close to the Island, some of their stone technology travelled east. Close to the end of this period, around 3500 BP another group settled, from the US, a narrow strip at the bottom of New Brunswick. They are what is referred to as the Susquehanna Tradition. They did not approach PEI yet perhaps some of their tool and weapon designs did.

It is all very vague and based on the reliable analysis of only a handful of sites. Our whole understanding of that long 4,000-5,000-year period is a house of cards. Only the continuing exploration by archaeologists with new techniques can clarify, detail by detail, what might have gone on.

This map, taken from Tuck’s Maritime Provinces Prehistory (p 21), gives you an idea of the distribution of these people. The book is long outdated, like so many of the books we relied on a generation ago, but progress has not brought earth-shaking changes to the various theories described by Tuck in his very fair summary. You will note that he does not ascribe any tradition to PEI.

At the end of this long period of migration, contact and change, yet more people seem to have appeared on the scene. Today we call them the Mi’kmaq, the form they prefer, not the one we grew up with – the MicMac. They are the living descendants of those who took over our region about 3,500 years ago. They either came out of those who had been there since Palaeo times – and that is the version the Mi’kmaq of today prefer – or they moved up the Atlantic coast from some place in the United States, which most archaeologists seem to favour. This makes for tough times when archaeology and the Mi’kmaq collide in the political arena.

Another map, again from Tuck’s book (p 43), gives you an idea of the extent of Mi’kmaq occupation by the time of the first contact with European explorers and adventurers. Another people, who lived in both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia at the entrance to the Bay of Fundy were called the Malecites. Although linguistically connected to the Mi’kmaq, they never seemed to have had direct influence on the Island – as far as we know!

I have no experience of a recognised Mi’kmaq site. When I visited the large excavation of the shell midden on Rustico (Robinson’s) Island in 1987, I suppose that the mounds of shells (below) must have dated from the Mi’kmaq period. Traces of earlier occupation were found underneath all this, however. I have never had access to whatever archaeological reports may have been written so don’t know what conclusions were drawn from this excavation.

The only Mi’kmaq points that I know of that were found on the Island are these two splendid milky quartz examples found at the Jones site. In the style attributed to the Mi’kmaq, with corner notches, they are masterpieces of knapping the most difficult material imaginable. Perhaps they are Mi’kmaq.

The only comparable find that I ever made was this broken quartz point from Miminegash. At that remote harbour in West Prince County is a lagoon that forms the harbour mouth as it drains into the sea. This point was found on the edge of the dunes that separate the lagoon from the sea. There had been rumours that lithic material was being found there and that a local collector had assembled some points. In spite of several attempts to get in touch with this person, a meeting was never arranged. One wonders if there is/was a Mi’kmaq site at Miminegash.

Miminegash is a remote harbour on the west side of Lot 2 and is said to be Mi’kmaq in origin with several meanings attached to it over the years. It location is dramatic and beautiful and is sadly unknown to most visitors to the Island. Here is the Google aerial showing its complex and beautiful layout. Perhaps there is a site waiting to be uncovered in that area.

White or Milky Quartz is so difficult to work because of its structure that it is always amazing to see fine artefacts like those in the Jones Collection at the PEI Museum. Various articles have been written on the subject of quartz fracturing and this one called How flakes shatter: a critical evaluation of quartz fracture analysis, by Tallavaara, Miikka; Mikael A Manninen; Esa Hertell and Tuija Rankama from the University of Helsinki attempts to set up a model of the process, taking into account various conditions. Here is the abstract of the article.

Despite its worldwide use as a stone tool raw material, quartz is known to be a difficult material for archaeologists. The main reason for this is the tendency of quartz flakes to fragment during detachment, which complicates the use of traditional lithic analyses. In this article we present an experimental study of quartz flake fragmentation. We evaluate the method called fracture analysis that has been developed and used explicitly for the study of quartz assemblages. The method assumes high predictability of quartz flake fragmentation, but our experiments show that there is significant variation in fragmentation that fracture analysis does not take into account. Our results indicate that this variation is partly explained by indenter hardness, the relative thickness of the detached flake, as well as individual knapper-related factors. These results undermine the applicability of quartz fracture analysis in its current form. In addition, we discuss the effects of flake fragmentation on the technological organisation of prehistoric quartz users and suggest that it has affected reduction strategies as well as blank and tool dimensions. We also suggest that there should be mobility-related differences in archaeological assemblages in terms of the quality of the quartz raw material and that the curation of quartz should be low in relation to better quality raw materials used parallel with it.

Unfortunately the article cannot be downloaded (one has to purchase the pdf) but I provide you with the link. Sometimes you are allowed to read it and other times you are not. In any case it is too difficult for anyone who doesn’t have the required expert knowledge in geology. I bring it to your attention because quartz fracture in the production of artefacts is obviously a big issue among archaeologists and geologists.

Another article by Ken Swayze and Robert McGhee called The Heritage Hills Site and Early Postglacial Occupation of the Ottawa Valley is also very interesting and somewhat easier to read if you are interested in the properties of quartz. Here is the abstract at the beginning of that article:

A recently discovered site on the outskirts of Ottawa is associated with Champlain Sea shorelines dating between approximately 11,000 and 9000 radiocarbon years ago. The assemblage of lithic tools is based on locally quarried vein quartz, worked primarily using bipolar reduction techniques. An experimental study of use wear on quartz tools was undertaken as the basis for recognizing used artifacts in the assemblage. These unifacial tools, with crushing and use polish on steep edges and points, resemble those characteristic of Early Archaic assemblages in New England and the St. Lawrence Valley. Local topographic conditions, as well as palaeoenvironmental evidence in soil profiles, suggests that the Heritage Hills site was occupied during the early postglacial period. This and other recently discovered sites in the area suggests the existence of a previously unrecognized Early Archaic occupation of the Ottawa Valley region of eastern Ontario.

Swayze and McGhee – The Heritage Hill Site and Early Postglacial Occupation …


Are there undiscovered Mi’kmaq Sites on the Island?

To return to consideration of PEI Mi’kmaq archaeology, I am not aware of any uncontaminated Mi’kmaq sites on the Island that will help give an idea of how long they have been present here, perhaps as long as 3,000 years. Like so many sites going back many thousands of years, the sinking and eroding coastline has destroyed the bulk of the evidence.

The Mi’kmaq, at least at the time of European contact about 500 years ago, used the bow and arrow, had ceramic vessels and knew something about agriculture. It is also said that they played hockey – indeed, invented the game.

Some fragments of pottery have been found in various places on the Island, but I don’t know where they are at present or whether they have been analysed. Aboriginal ceramic or pottery techniques are similar throughout the region. Comb-like punches and corded string were used to impress various designs on the pots, which were round, with a well-defined neck and a base that was usually slightly conical.  Here is a scan of an old colour slide from Canada’s Visual History, produced by National Museums and the National Film Board of Canada.

There would have been endless supplies of pottery clay (on the Island called brick clay) for the aboriginals to use in the making of pottery. You only have to look at Island houses and churches made of brick in the second half of the 19th Century to see just how vast that supply was. The easiest way to find it was in lenses visible on the eroded sides of fresh-water brooks and streams.

The material culture of the Mi’kmaq in the Island, especially the lithic material, has not been studied in any detail and, at the present, I do not have access to whatever material, if it exists, may throw light on this matter. If I find anything in the time ahead, I will carefully insert it in this section. There are so many questions to be answered.



From time to time I have used photographs that I took 35 years ago of lithic material found by Rolley Jones and which has now happily found its way into the provincial collection. I wish to give credit and thanks to the Prince Edward Island Museum as I post this material in this format. I also wish to acknowledge my debt for the pottery graphic from Canada’s Visual History, produced by National Museums and the National Film Board of Canada.


Reference Material

Denny, Alex et al., “Nova Scotia Micmac Aboriginal Rights Position Paper,” The Micmac News, Vol. 5, No. 12A, Sydney, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, 1976.

Denys, Nicolas, Concerning the ways of the Indians: Their Customs, Dress, Methods Of Hunting And Fishing and their Amusements [1672], The Nova Scotia Museum, Halifax, 1979.

Swayze, Ken and Robert McGhee, “The Heritage Hills Site and Early Postglacial Occupation of the Ottawa Valley,” Archaeology of Eastern North America, Vol. 39, pp. 131-152, 2011.

Swayze and McGhee – The Heritage Hill Site and Early Postglacial Occupation …

Tallavaara, Miikka, Mikael A Manninen, Esa Hertell and Tuija Rankama, “How flakes shatter: a critical evaluation of quartz fracture analysis,” Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 37, Issue 10, pp. 2442-2448, Academic Press, 2010.

Tuck, James A., Maritime Provinces Prehistory, Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1995