We know extraordinarily little about the diverse native cultures that flourished in the Seacoast region for at least 10,000 years. We assume our Paleo-Indian founders were part of the migration across the land bridge at the Bering Strait following the last Ice Age. We know they were sophisticated and resourceful hunters, able to catch giant deep sea swordfish from dugout canoes as early as the Late Archaic Period 4,000 years ago. We know that soon after the arrival of foreign settlers in the 1600s, native populations were literally wiped out. In Western NH, for example, 98% of the Abnaki speaking people succumbed to the spread of European-borne disease, war and colonization.
Reconstructing Seacoast life before the "contact" period is a tricky task at best. We have so few puzzle pieces, even when combined with numerous artifacts found in the NH Lakes Region and along the Merrimack River near Manchester. Nearby Maine is riddled with important sites. Reports beginning in the 18th century documented large shell middens or piles of prehistoric kitchen debris including discarded shells, bones and tools. Here we find the mysterious "Red Paint People" who may have marked their burial sites with reddish mineral deposits. Studying prehistoric coastal people is an especially difficult puzzle because the NH Seacoast, part of the Gulf of Maine that extends south to Cape Cod in Massachusetts, has changed shape over the years. Sea level has risen at least 150 feet since Paleo and Archaic Indian days. That means the secrets of their existence may be lost forever, buried miles out to sea.
The most extensively researched and excavated site in our region was the 1974-75 dig in Seabrook, completed just before construction of the nuclear power plant there. This University of New Hampshire project proved the Winnicunnet region, a marshy area not far from modern Hampton Beach, was occupied for at least 4,000 years. Methodically unearthed and analyzed the artifacts include the bones of large and small animals, turtles, codfish, birds and sizable deposits of shells mixed with stone weapons, tools and clay pots.
Funding for scientific study of the region's primitive heritage is hard to come by. The work involves untold hours of scientific work by colleges, professionals, students, and volunteers. Programs like S.C.R.A.P., a "hands on" field study effort organized by the NH state archeologist, provide crucial training. An active all volunteer NH Archeological Society publishes detailed site reports that are available to the public.
Many collections of Native American artifacts were excavated years ago, but have yet to be effectively studied with modern techniques. Some human skeletal remains have been recently reburied at the request of modern NH Native Americans. But prehistoric artifacts from coastal and inland NH Indians can be seen at local museums. Fundraising efforts are underway to create a new museum to house the Howard Sargent Collection.
No efforts will ever bring back the rich native heritage lost to time and modernization. Today the people who lived here for thousands of years are known simply by the stone weapons they crafted. For lack of more data, archeologists call them "small stemmed point" people. Contemporary Native Americans call them sacred ancestors. Only by listening to the combined voices of modern historians and modern Indians, can we all hear the whisper of their ancient songs.
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