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Uncovering the present

{Porcupine Strand research team}
The Porcupine Strand research team.

"It's an incredible experience to actually work with a group of people whose history is being uncovered," said Dr. Lisa Rankin, a Memorial University archaeologist who researches Labrador's history. "When there is a real connection between the past and the present, the work just seems that much more interesting."

In the summer of 2001, Dr. Rankin went to Labrador in search of archaeological sites on Labrador's Porcupine Strand. That summer, 37 sites were identified and the plans were set in motion for a three-year SSHRC project that started in Labrador this past summer.

Equipped with a strong desire to piece together the cultural history of southern Labrador, Dr. Rankin, her devoted dog Suzie, several graduate and undergraduate archaeology students from Memorial, two geo-morphology students, and local people from Cartwright, worked and lived together to bring history to life. This life, according to Dr. Rankin, is very telling of a rich past that is still very present in this region today.

"This is an area of Labrador that has remained untapped archaeologically. There is a 7,500 year history in this part of Labrador. As soon as the glaciers left, people moved in. And so we're really interested in the connections between the various groups who lived on the Porcupine Strand, why and how the people lived there, and in seeing the history of a people whom we live and work with today."

Dr. Rankin explained how there is "a full range of different cultures that inhabited Labrador's southern coast." About 7,200 years ago, the Maritime Archaic Indians settled on the Porcupine Strand, successfully building a life for themselves. Within about 3,000 years of this settlement, Paleo-Eskimos, originating from the north, arrived in this same area, faced with needs similar to those of the earlier settlers.

"It is around this time in history that we see a shift in how the Maritime Archaic Indians lived," said Dr. Rankin. "They slowly moved from the outer coast to more densely populated, but very out of the way areas. This move may be indicative of their need to defend themselves, or of a strained relationship between the two groups."

For eight weeks, Dr. Rankin and her team systematically combed the sandy beaches of the 40 kilometre Porcupine Strand, uncovering a vast array of bifaces, arrowheads, knives, and other telling artifacts that help piece together the cultural shifts on this Strand. In addition, Shane Greene and Jennifer Smith, two geo-morphology students who worked on the project this summer, examined the development of the Porcupine Strand itself, how it might have looked 7,000 years ago, and why the environment was useful for settlement.

"From both the archaeological and geo-morphological perspectives, we are very interested in how the groups of settlers got along, why they chose this region to live in, and what the environment might have looked like back then," added Dr. Rankin. "These artifacts bring these groups and this Strand to life again."

The stories, the artifacts, and the journey brought to life by this project are particularly relevant for the Innu and Inuit who were very much a part of Dr. Rankin's work this summer. "The Thule Inuit, for example, who inhabited the Porcupine Strand at the point of contact with the Europeans, are ancestors of the Inuit who still live in Labrador today," she explained. "I learned so much working with the people of Labrador. After all, I'm just the researcher. But this is their history."

The future of Dr. Rankin's look into the past is very promising. In the past two years, she has uncovered over 100 new archaeological sites in the Porcupine Strand region — sites that will eventually be inhabited by Dr. Rankin and her team as they continue their study of how the past became the present in this historically-rich region.

"Labrador is a truly incredible place to work. The people, the sites, my team, and the experience, are all key to telling the stories of many cultures," stated Dr. Rankin. "I feel so lucky to be a part of research that simultaneously reveals the history, and present, of the people of Labrador."

For more information about the project, please contact Dr. Lisa Rankin at lrankin@mun.ca.

{Memorial University of Newfoundland}