The story of Beothuk culture University of Alberta researcher Todd Kristensen and his U.S. co-author Donald Holly have constructed is an amazing example of how humans exploited a narrow niche in their local environment for both sustenance and insight into another world after death (via Quirks and Quarks).
The distribution of archaeological sites that are attributed to the Little Passage complex, seems to confirm the coastal orientation of the Beothuk who followed on from this prehistoric culture. There appears to have been a direct correlation between the settlement pattern that favoured sheltered bays, inlets and archipelagos offering strategic access to a full range of resources, with birds acting as a significant part of the diet.
Of the 28 recorded Beothuk burial sites in Newfoundland, 11 are known to have yielded bone pendants, and numerous other burials likely housed pendants prior to extensive looting in the 19th and 20th centuries. Pendants have even been found at three suspected burial sites that lack human remains, which may represent burials in lieu of a body (which may have been lost at sea). It is obvious these well worn, repaired and deeply personal items played a major role in the life of a Beothuk individual.
Beothuk pendants come in a variety of shapes and designs and the authors suspect that many represent birds or parts of their anatomy; some bone pendants seem to represent primary wing feathers while other are clearly feet, others relate to complete, but stylised diving birds. Given that the Beothuk conceived of the afterlife as an island, it is perhaps not surprising that with only one exception, all known Beothuk burial sites occur on the coast as a suitable departure point to a distant happy island, and of the 28 recorded coastal burial sites, 22 are even located on small islands.
The Beothuk experienced birds daily and must have acquired an intimate knowledge of bird’s flying, diving and swimming as well as the cyclical nature of bird migration. Kristensen feels that the Beothuk must have incorporated this into belief systems regarding the dead – leaving for new life.
A solid manifestation of this bird cosmology are the bone pendants,which use birds to relate to the transformation between life and death. Bird pendants and even parts of birds are clearly associated with burials, which suggest connects birds to a belief in soul flight acting as spiritual messengers to carry the dead to the afterlife of the Beothuk their mysterious ‘happy island’.
What is revealing is, that, according to this story, the Beothuk made the most of a very austere environment, to create an elegantly simple religion. The story is also materialistic, perhaps reductionist. Perhaps the Beothuk dreamed of a means to escape their predicament all along.