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Newfoundland birds were the heart of extinct Beothuk nation’s religion, study sa

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« on: February 18, 2013, 12:38:16 am »

Newfoundland birds were the heart of extinct Beothuk nation’s religion, study says
By Randy Boswell, Postmedia News February 14, 2013

Newfoundland birds were the heart of extinct Beothuk nation’s religion, study says
An artists’ illustration depicting a Beothuk funeral ritual along the Atlantic coast.
Photograph by: HANDOUT/Rae Braden/Cambridge Archaeological Journal , Postmedia News

Archeologists have shed stunning new light on the extinct Beothuk nation of Newfoundland, revealing through a study of carved pendants unearthed from coastal burial sites that the ill-fated people — who had inhabited the region for at least 1,000 years before the devastating arrival of Europeans in the 15th century — placed birds at the centre of their complex religious cosmology, believing the winged creatures were “spiritual messengers” that carried the souls of the dead to an “island afterlife.”

The remarkable revelations about the vanished culture, the 19th-century eclipse of which remains one of the central tragedies of Canadian history, are detailed in a paper published this week in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal by University of Alberta researcher Todd Kristensen and his U.S. co-author Donald Holly.

Kristensen told Postmedia News on Thursday 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.”

After Anglo-Italian explorer John Cabot’s landmark voyage to Newfoundland in 1497, the indigenous Beothuk clashed with a succession of colonizers from Portugal, France and Britain in the centuries that followed.

The Beothuk may also have been the so-called “skraelings” who had violent encounters with Viking voyagers from Iceland and Greenland who briefly settled in northern Newfoundland — and then quickly retreated — around 1000 A.D.

Once numbering as many as 5,000 people, the Beothuk population was ravaged by diseases introduced to the future Canada by European settlers. An artistically gifted Beothuk woman named Shanawdithit, the last known survivor of her nation, died in St. John’s in 1829.

Notably, the new study points out, historical records show that Shanawdithit once referred to a “happy island” afterworld that figured prominently in the Beothuk’s little-understood 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?”

Suddenly, fresh analyses of objects from Beothuk burials showed that most of the patterns etched in caribou-bone pendants had an unlikely source of inspiration: 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, black guillemot and the penguin-like great auk — once a plentiful source eggs and meat on Newfoundland, but which, like the Beothuk, was extinct by the mid-19th century — provided both “food and food for thought” for ancient island inhabitants, the authors state in the published study.

“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,” argue Kristensen and Holly, a professor at Eastern Illinois University who spent four months at the U of A working on the study. “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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