In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Chris Wolff of the State University of New York Plattsburgh reveals how fear of the unknown shaped culture during the peopling of North America.
Chris Wolff is an assistant professor of anthropology at SUNY Plattsburgh. His teaching and research interests are centered on archaeology, with topics including human-environment interaction in the past, coastal adaptations, hunter-gatherer social organization, and subarctic- and arctic-adapted peoples. He earned his Ph.D. at Southern Methodist University.
Dr. Chris Wolff – Fear and Maritime Archaic Culture
The Maritime Archaic people who lived roughly 8,000 to 3,200 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 edge of the known world and voyagers into the unknown. Fear of the unknown is, and probably always has been, part of the daily lives of humans. How people deal with it at cultural and regional scales can be quite variable.
While fear can inspire bravery and exploration that cross 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 have recently found evidence of ideological behavior manifested in what appears to be the symbolic “killing” of a 6,000-year-old structure–spear points covered in a red mineral and stabbed into its central hearth.
That finding, in association with at least one earlier burial from the same culture that contained the body of a young person lain face down with a large rock placed on his back, hint at supernatural fear in the larger prehistoric context of exploration and colonization of uninhabited landscapes. Changes in settlement and burial practices during the Maritime Archaic occupation of the northeast coast of Subarctic Canada suggests that other fears were also influencing human behavior.
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. One aspect of my research examines some of the more dynamic aspects of the ancient archaeological evidence from that time and how to a large extent it can be seen to contain material evidence of collective fear of the physical and cultural unknown. Future research will continue my examination of the intersection of psychology and archaeology and how early peoples coped with fear and how we can recognize it and other emotions in prehistoric contexts.