Photo of archaeologists working on a Maritime Archaic dig site on the coast of Labrador

Life on the Edge

Fear and Loathing in the Eastern Subarctic Archaic Period

By Dr. Christopher B. Wolff

In his research, Dr. Christopher Wolff explores the intersection between archaeology and psychology. Here, he discusses evidence he has found of fear in the archaeological record.

The Maritime Archaic people who lived roughly 3,200 to 8,000 years ago in the Canadian Eastern Subarctic were living on the edge: the edge of inhabitable landscapes as the glaciers retreated; the borders of the earth as it disappeared into the cold North Atlantic waters; and the outer limits of human population on the North American continent.

In the early part of their occupation of the coasts of Labrador, there were no other people to their north or east; they were on the border of the known world and were voyagers into that unknown.

What Fear Can Inspire

Fear of the unknown is, and probably always has been, part of the daily lives of humans, but how people deal with it at cultural and regional scales can be quite variable.

While fear can inspire bravery and exploration, crossing the borders of comfort and contentedness, it can also have other effects such as increased isolation; internal and/or external conflict; and increased religiosity — all of which have material consequences that could be found in the archaeological record.

I recently found evidence of this sort of ideological behavior. It manifested itself in what appears to be the symbolic “killing” of a 6,000-year-old structure. Spear points covered in a red mineral were stabbed into the central hearth of what appeared to be a single-family dwelling.

An earlier burial from the same culture contained the body of a young person lain face down with a large rock placed on his back. Taken together, those two findings hint at supernatural fear amidst the larger prehistoric context of exploration and colonization of uninhabited landscapes.

What’s more, changes in settlement and burial practices during the Maritime Archaic occupation of the northeast coast of Subarctic Canada suggest that other fears were also influencing human behavior.

Moving from the Edge to the Middle

In the latter centuries of the Maritime Archaic tradition, strangers arrived from the cold north — from beyond the edge of their known world — and the Maritime Archaic people went from being on the edge to being in the middle and dealing with new unknowns and new borders.

My research continues to look at the ancient archaeological evidence from that time, studying how — to a large extent — it can be seen to contain evidence of collective fear of the physical and cultural unknown. This research examines the intersection of psychology and archaeology, trying to determine how early peoples coped with fear and how we can recognize it and other emotions in these prehistoric contexts.

About the Author

Photo of Dr. Christopher WolffAn assistant professor of anthropology, Dr. Christopher Wolff specializes in archaeology, focusing on topics including human-environment interaction in the past; coastal adaptations; hunter-gatherer social organization; and subarctic- and arctic-adapted peoples. Prior to joining the faculty at SUNY Plattsburgh, he worked as an archaeologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., where he collaborated with native peoples from the Alaskan and northwest coast on the repatriation of their ancestors and sacred objects held in the collections of the museum. He remains a research associate of the museum and is very interested in giving students hands-on experiences in archaeology and fostering a dynamic and interactive classroom.