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Reaping the seeds of history

{Dr. Michael Deal}
Dr. Michael Deal

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 Memorial's 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 subsisted.

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 his doctorate.

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. Mary's 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 don't survive unless they're either charred, or they're in an extremely dry or an extremely wet environment. Also, certain species have tougher seeds so they're 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.

"We're assuming that they're 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 Guy's 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 Russell's 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 another.

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 Mi'kmaq 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 Mi'kmaq, as both are Algonquin peoples.

"So we assume they had a broad range of understanding of plant use, but the evidence isn't 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.

{Memorial University of Newfoundland}