Red Paint Culture Flourishes in Eastern North America Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Archaeological evidence suggests that a prehistoric culture known as the Red Paint culture existed in New England and the Canadian maritime provinces and ultimately, some say mysteriously, disappeared.

Summary of Event

The term Red Paint culture or Red Paint people refers to a prehistoric people who existed in the Archaic period and had a tradition of burying their dead with gifts and then covering both with red ocher (iron oxide powder) pigment. The term Maritime Archaic tradition, popularized by archaeologist James A. Tuck, also appears in the archaeological literature concerning these people. As Tuck defines the term, it refers to the place, the time, and the characteristics of the culture. “Maritime” suggests the people’s situation near and reliance on the coast. “Archaic” places the culture from c. 5000-3000 b.c.e. to c. 1 c.e. and defines them as a preagricultural, hunter-gatherer people who flourished in eastern North America. “Tradition” points to the fact that this culture and its distinct ways of life persisted for a significant period of time. Neither label—Red Paint people nor Maritime Archaic tradition—is accepted by all archaeologists, a fact that is indicative of the many controversies surrounding these people.

Evidence of a prehistoric culture was found throughout the nineteenth century, most often stone artifacts such as woodworking tools, knives, spearheads, and implements for fishing buried in deposits of red ocher. It was not until 1892, however, that Charles Willoughby conducted the first detailed excavations for Harvard’s Peabody Museum, publishing in 1899 an account of his findings that garnered a good deal of attention. Still, it would be a decade until the next important excavations, when Warren K. Moorehead, director of the Peabody Museum in Andover, Massachusetts, conducted the first detailed archaeological digs (1912-1920’s). Moorehead’s findings, in particular the character of the red ocher deposits, brought about more than increased interest in the mysterious culture. Moorehead’s site was clearly a burial ground; no one argued that fact. However, the graves were so old that no bones were unearthed. Even some of the stone artifacts were badly decayed. The character of the evidence led Moorehead to publish an article in the well-respected journal American Anthropology. This article triggered one of the earliest controversies when he identified his evidence as belonging to a prehistoric culture so old that it had nothing to do with later Algonquian peoples. At the time, theories about the prehistory of Native Americans were tending toward a separation of Native Americans and any prehistoric finds, so David T. Bushnell of the Smithsonian Institution made a rebuttal, arguing that the graves were much more recent than Moorehead had suggested and that they were indeed those of a Native American culture. Advancements in the field of archaeology, in particular radiocarbon (carbon-14) dating, resolved one aspect of this controversy by dating Moorehead’s graves between c. 4000 b.c.e. and 1 c.e.

Initially, this controversial prehistoric culture was recognized through such cemetery sites as those Moorehead excavated, in particular their red-ocher-covered burial gifts. In archaeological studies, such artifacts are referred to as belonging to the Moorehead Burial tradition. Evidence of this tradition has been found from southern Maine to the Great Lakes and up into Labrador. In the late 1960’s, after construction workers discovered evidence of burials on a small promontory in Port au Choix, located on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, south of the Strait of Belle Isle, archaeologist Tuck of Memorial University of Newfoundland excavated more than fifty graves. Radiocarbon dating placed this important site at c. 2400-1200 b.c.e. Buried with the dead were gifts of tools, various implements used for fishing, animal bones, carved animal effigies, and small white quartz stones, all of which were covered with the telltale red ocher, thus connecting this site to those of the Moorehead Burial tradition. Combined with other crucial discoveries, such as those at L’Anse-Amour, the excavated evidence suggests that these prehistoric peoples were present in southern Labrador by c. 5500 b.c.e. and flourishing along most of the coastlines of Labrador and Newfoundland by 2000 b.c.e. Many archaeologists believe that this more northerly culture was the ancestor of the peoples of the Moorehead Burial tradition.

The unearthed evidence to date—from sites in New England to those in the Canadian Maritime Provinces—suggests a reliance on the sea and its resources. The burial gifts in a L’Anse-Amour grave included a toggling harpoon used for seal hunting, a walrus tusk, and an assortment of fish bones. The Port au Choix excavation unearthed numerous fishhooks, harpoons, fish-bone tools, lances for hunting whale and walrus, fish spears, and tool kits that contained woodworking implements intended for watercraft. A more recent excavation at the Turner site on North Haven Island in the Penobscot Bay of Maine has unearthed barbed bone fishhooks and swordfish spears. Based on findings such as these and the evidence that such artifacts were traded, archaeologists have inferred the importance of the sea and sea travel to these peoples.

The Red Paint people’s seafaring skills plus the discovery of certain similar attributes in excavations in Europe led to still another controversial theory, that the Red Paint people had European ancestors. Recent scientific methods suggest that these similarities might be an example of parallel cultural revolution rather than evidence of contact. However, archaeologists and other experts do not agree on any single theory of these people’s origin—or disappearance. Some see the Red Paint culture/Maritime Archaic peoples as a distinct race that appeared and then suddenly disappeared from the coastal lands of North America. Others argue that only their unique traditions, in particular the inclusion of red ocher in burial practices, disappeared. Later archaeological studies—for example, those conducted by the Maine State Museum, various campuses of the University of Maine, and the Memorial University of Newfoundland—focus not only on burial sites but also on occupation or habitation sites, which may shed light on such issues. Because a rising sea level is slowly destroying many coastal sites, the answers to the controversies and mysteries surrounding the Red Paint people may never be resolved.


Red Paint culture/Maritime Archaic tradition sites provide glimpses into the lives of a people who flourished for thousands of years in the Archaic period of North American history. Some of these people were the first to occupy Labrador, predating the Norse expeditions of c. 1000 c.e.; others were the first to colonize the Island of Newfoundland. As is evidenced by their apparent trade activity, these people were excellent seafarers with a lively economy. The specialization and complexity of their tools suggest their craftsmanship and adaptability. Their mortuary ceremonialism provides evidence of an active intellectual and religious life. The rarity of Red Paint culture/Maritime Archaic tradition sites and the fact that this culture disappeared from the archaeological record altogether make these people’s story even more compelling.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bourque, Bruce J. Diversity and Complexity in Prehistoric Maritime Societies: A Gulf of Maine Perspective. New York: Plenum Press, 1995. One of the basic resource materials for information on Maine’s Native American prehistory.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Folsom, Franklin, and Mary Elting Folsom. America’s Ancient Treasures: A Guide to Archeological Sites and Museums in the United States and Canada. 3d ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983. A good source for finding places to visit as well as information.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sanger, David, ed. Discovering Maine’s Archaeological Heritage. Augusta: Maine Historic Preservation Commission, 1979. Considered one of the early basic resource texts for information on Maine’s Native American prehistory and still valued as an important source.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Snow, Dean R. The Archaeology of New England. New York: Academic Press, 1980. This work provides a basic introduction to the archaeology of Maine and comments specifically on the “myths” of New England such as the Red Paint people.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trigger, Bruce G., and Wilcomb E. Washburn. The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas. Vol. 1. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. An invaluable basic resource.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tuck, James A. “An Archaic Cemetery at Port au Choix, Newfoundland.” American Antiquity 36, no. 3 (1971): 343-358. An important early resource on the Maritime Archaic tradition by the archaeologist who excavated the Port au Choix site.

Categories: History