Very little is known about the Red Paint People, but they did exist in Maine some 2000 to 6000 years ago.
Since early colonial times the buried caches of red ochre were known to farmers and hunters. In at least one case, a thrifty Yankee mixed some of the coloring with seal oil to make a lovely paint.
Harvard Archaeologist Charles Willoughby first began documenting the people in 1892 with visits to grave sites in Bucksport, Alamoosook Lake and Ellsworth.
His findings were built upon by Andover archaeologist Warren Moorehead in 1913. Moorehead compared later Indian relics to those found at the cemeteries of the Red Paint People. He concluded that the Red Paint People were distinct from the Indian tribes. Their tools -- arrowheads, spear points, knives, gouges -- were made differently. And the graves were so old that virtually no human remains existed, just tiny bone fragments.
Presumably, the red ochre (and sometimes yellow ochre) buried in the cemeteries carried some meaning for the people, since it had to be transported quite a distance to be buried, though no one has evidence to show what significance it held.
Moorehead's declaration that the Red Paint People were significantly older than other Indians immediately drew criticism. A leading archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institute declared that the graves were most likely recent. Moorehead also theorized that a tidal wave or earthquake may have altered the coast, submerging the sites of the villages where the Red Paint People lived, leaving behind only cemeteries that were on higher ground.
Carbon dating would eventually prove Moorehead correct about the age of the Red Paint People. However, the idea of the tidal wave has been discredited. Later archaeologists have found areas where Red Paint People lived and concluded that they likely were hunters, fishermen and boat builders, as later occupants of the land were. And they know that burial sites containing red coloring have been found elsewhere in the world, including Europe, that may be related to those sites in Maine.
But archaeologists still know little more about the early people than the first colonists to stumble upon the strange red coloring buried in the ground – including why the red ochre was so important.