(Sept. 5, 2002, Gazette)
To the average person, food is a source of nourishment and enjoyment.
But for Dr. Michael Deal, it can be a key to the past.
Through his paleoethnobotany course, taught through Memorials Archaeology
Unit since 1990, Dr. Deal and his students have used plant remains from
archaeological digs to form a piece of the puzzle of how earlier cultures
Paleoethnobotany focuses on plant remains recovered from archaeological
sites, which may have been used for food or medicine. Dr. Deal became
involved in this kind of work in New Brunswick, shortly after completing
It was at a prehistoric Indian site that he first worked on sediments,
soils that have been modified by human occupation or activity. Together
with a botanist at UNB, Dr. Deal became familiar with identifying plant
remains that were found at this site. He later taught at St. Marys
University in Halifax, where his interests were further developed. Through
projects in Nova Scotia, Dr. Deal put together a reference collection
for identifying plant remains, by comparing what he found to seed samples
at the herbarium at the Nova Scotia Museum.
Dr. Deal points out, however, that comparing modern seeds to those found
at dig sites can be tricky, primarily because the seeds that survive the
tests of time have often been altered.
The soils in the Atlantic region are very acidic, so plant remains
in general dont survive unless theyre either charred, or theyre
in an extremely dry or an extremely wet environment. Also, certain species
have tougher seeds so theyre more likely to survive. So there are
a lot of different biases built in through natural preservation conditions.
However, even if the seeds are charred, their physical features are only
partially altered, making identification a reasonable task. Also, a limited
number of plants grow in Newfoundland, again further narrowing the scope
of the identification process.
Identification is only the start. From there, archaeologists try to place
the seeds in context to figure out exactly what significance they played
in the lives of those who occupied the site. Dr. Deal recently completed
an in-depth study of plant remains from Beothuk sites, which will soon
appear in The Archaeobotany of Hunter Gatherers, a book to be published
by the Institute of Archaeology in London, England.
This study focuses on 10 Beothuk sites across Newfoundland and sediment
samples collected by several different excavators. Over a period of five
or six years, Dr. Deal and his students combed through the samples, and
supplemented their findings with existing linguistic evidence on Beothuk
names for plants, as well as ethnohistoric information (primarily comments
from early explorers).
We put all that together to see what kind of a picture we could
make of what plant use was like for the Beothuk in the late prehistoric
and early historic periods in this province. The project yielded
some significant discoveries.
For example, findings of grape seeds at Beothuk sites, such as the one
in Ferryland, have suggested friendly contact with Europeans.
Were assuming that theyre from raisins, rather than
from actual grapes, since we know that the Europeans used raisins on their
voyages because they had a long shelf life, explained Dr. Deal.
Existing historical documents suggest that raisins were also used as gifts
or in trade with native peoples. A significant quote from one of John
Guys people mentions that they had left raisins at a Beothuk site
in the Dildo Pond area where they were trying to communicate with the
Beothuk. Charred grape seeds found in sediment from a fireplace at Russells
Point confirmed this historic information, and helped to interpret the
materials found in Ferryland and other sites.
Essentially, these seeds suggest that the Beothuk were on friendly
terms with the Europeans, at least for the first several decades of contact,
said Dr. Deal.
This contrasts with later historical accounts, indicating that the Europeans
and the Beothuk co-existed at a distance, and often in conflict with one
While most plants were likely used simply as food sources, others may
have functioned in other ways.
Dr. Deal stated, we know that, in the Maritimes, the Mikmaq
for example had nearly two hundred species of plants used for medicine.
At present, evidence has been found to confirm Beothuk use of medicinal
plants of only half a dozen species. However, archaeologists assume that
they would have had similar knowledge to the Mikmaq, as both are
So we assume they had a broad range of understanding of plant use,
but the evidence isnt there in the archaeological record,
said Dr. Deal.
The hope is that sites will continue to bear fruit in terms of plant remains
to add to the growing body of knowledge in this field.