Wabanaki Life Thousands of Years Ago

Wabanaki people have lived in this region, their ancestral homelands, for thousands of years. Today, many Wabanaki families live within miles of where their distant ancestors spent summers. We can learn about what living here long ago was like from archeological evidence and from the traditions taught by generations of Wabanaki communities.

What was life like thousands of years ago for Wabanaki families on Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park?
Families in birchbark canoes traveled here seasonally to hunt, fish, and harvest the land’s abundant resources as early as 5,000 years ago. Coastal campsites at places like Somes Sound allowed people to easily hunt sea and land mammals, gather seasonal berries and roots, and collect clams and other shellfish.

As Wabanaki people discarded unused clamshells, they piled up to form heaps, or middens. Over many years, these big garbage piles included broken or unwanted tools made from stone and bone. Normally, anything made from bone would quickly decompose in Maine’s acidic soil; however, calcium carbonate in shells neutralizes the soil, which preserves delicate bone and other organic material. The old saying, “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure,” is certainly true here—shell midden sites provide archaeologists with important information about how Wabanaki people lived their everyday lives in the past.

One site along Somes Sound provides a snapshot of Wabanaki life 1,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence shows that Wabanaki people set up temporary seasonal camps that included tent-like, birchbark homes called wigwams—meaning “home” in Algonquian-based languages. Wigwams were cone-shaped, and had a hole in the top to let out smoke from the cozy fire inside. The interior space around the fire was probably blanketed with large deer, moose, and bear pelts—perfect to cushion the dirt or sand-packed floor. Ceramic cooking pots, birchbark ladles and spoons, bone awls for poking holes in animal pelts, and other household items might have rested inside. Animal hides probably hung over the doorway to block wind and dust from blowing in. All in all, a wigwam was probably a comfortable, snug place to take respite from the summer sun or winter wind and snow.

What did Wabanaki people eat?
Archaeological evidence shows that Wabanaki families on MDI 1,000 years ago hunted and harvested a variety of land and sea animals. People ate seals, porpoises, white tailed deer, moose, beaver, and many varieties of birds. They fished for sculpin and flounder at high tide on mudflats and gathered sea urchins, clams, and blue mussels, which were steamed open to reveal the delicate meat. However, Wabanaki people avoided one particular Maine “delicacy”—lobster. Only one lobster claw has been discovered in 20 years of excavating Maine coastal sites. [1]

How did Wabanaki people make the things they needed for everyday life?
Wabanaki people crafted tools from available resources. From animal bone they carved harpoons, needles, awls, and fishing hooks. From stone they chipped arrowheads, knives, scrapers, and heavy woodworking tools such as chisels and gouges. People made their cooking pots from locally available clay mixed with crushed rock grit or shells, then coiled and smoothed them into cone-shaped vessels. [2] Before firing them they decorated the pots with a variety of designs that changed over time. These designs help archaeologists assign a date to the pots.

Did Wabanaki people visit in the summer, like today’s tourists?
Even though visitors today plan their stays during the summer months, Wabanaki people long ago spent time here in all seasons—even winter—although not year round at one site. One way archaeologists know the season Wabanaki people camped here is by studying the teeth of mammals, such as deer, found at sites. Mammals grow annual growth rings on their teeth. When the teeth are cut open and the rings examined, archaeologists can tell the season in which the deer died and, therefore, the season in which people were living at the site. Also, some animal species are only found in Maine at certain seasons of the year, which helps document seasonal settlements.

[1] An Island in Time, Three Thousand Years of Cultural Exchange on Mount Desert Island, Abbe Museum Publication, 1984, David Sanger, p 13

[2] An Island in Time, Three Thousand Years of Cultural Exchange on Mount Desert Island, Abbe Museum Publication, David Sanger, 1984, p17

A Note on Protecting Archaeological Sites
The mission of the National Park Service (NPS) is to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The NPS cares for many of the nation’s most significant cultural heritage sites, including archaeological sites.

To fully protect and preserve fragile archaeological sites, NPS policies and federal law require that sensitive information about the specific location and nature of archaeological sites on park lands be withheld from public disclosure. The NPS, however, recognizes that the American people are ultimately the stewards of these resources. Park interpretive programs aim to make the public aware of the value of these resources and the role citizens may play in stewardship.

Acadia National Park

Last updated: January 31, 2022