The Beothuk and the auk

The Beothuk people of Newfoundland almost disappeared without a trace. The last known member of the tribe died on June 6, 1829.

The only reason there is any historical record has nothing to do with the desire of the Beothuk to have anything to do with the settlers.  No, they kept to themselves and avoided the Europeans. Unlike the Mi’kmaq, who were keen traders with the newcomers, the Beothuk were as furtive as birds in the famous island mist.

Circumstances surrounding the capture of the last two know Beothuk had more to do with misfortune or hostility.

The last know member was found by settlers, weak and starving. She was described as “tall, and majestic, mild and tractable, but characteristically proud and cautious.” The other Beothuk, Demasduit, who was her aunt died nine years earlier. She was taken by settlers in a raid on a Beothuk camp in which Demasduit’s husband and infant child were killed.

Because sightings of the Beothuk were rare, settlers were curious of Demasduit. A local philanthropist became interested in the language and customs of the captive Beothuk. The governor’s wife painted a portrait of Demasduit (shown here) which is now stored in the Portrait Gallery of Canada.

Demasduit

Other than these last two Beothuk and what could be learned from Demasduit, the historical record of these reclusive people is thin.

The disappearance of the Great auk is less baffling. The penguin-like bird lived on the nearby Funk Island. Recent archaeological explorations have found that the auk was a source of food for the Beothuk. The eggs were 65 larger than chicken eggs. The Beothuk boiled them or dried them and made protein flour. The birds were fat and nutritious. And they were easy pickings because the auk had no fear of humans; they could be loaded into birchbark canoes like groceries into the trunk of a car.

The settlers liked them too. The demise of the auk started with the discovery of Funk Island by Jacques Cartier in 1534. He wrote: “these birds are so fat it is marvellous. In less than half an hour we filled two boats full of them as if they had been stones.”

Archaeologists have discovered a link between birds that went beyond Beothuk  diet. They had a reverence for the escape from this world that winged and water birds represented. Archaeologist Todd Kristensen explains: “However, our recent archaeological journey into the minds of the ancient Beothuk began with the premise that what occupies our stomachs tends to occupy our thoughts as well” in Canada’s History magazine.

Bird motifs have been found at Beothuk burial sites on the carved plates of caribou bones. The motifs represent both winged Arctic terns and webbed auk feet. Many Beothuk burial grounds are found on isolated islands, as if these remote dots in the ocean would provide a staging ground for the departure of the Beothuk into the next world.

Perhaps the disappearance of the Beothuk is not so mysterious after all. Faced with the invasion of deadly settlers, they escaped to a new found land of their own.

 

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