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The Red Paint People of Maine

Before the first colonists and explorers came to New England. Before even the American Indian tribes lived here, there were the Red Paint People of Maine.

Very little is known about the Red Paint People, but they did exist in Maine some 2000 to 6000 years ago.

Archaeologists excavate a cemetery of the Red Paint People in Orland, Maine.

Archaeologists excavate a cemetery of the Red Paint People in Orland, Maine.

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.

13 comments

  1. Kristin Joan

    We need to learn more about this !!!

  2. Matthew Herzog

    They saw Satan everywhere, just like today’s evangelicals.

  3. Nancy Slator

    The intro seems to promise an explanation but the article doesn’t have one.

  4. Focused on Old Copper Culuture around the Great Lakes. Interested in sharing with others on OCC, ROP, North Atlantic Maritime Culture, and the European Beaker People. I wonder if they all are the same people in different situation. char bruns

  5. “The Moorehead burial tradition is a long-lived Archaic period burial pattern concentrated within the central Gulf of Maine region. The tradition is characterized by a large number of formal cemetery sites with graves generally lacking bone preservation, but containing a variety of artifacts including gouges, adzes, celts, whetstones, plummets, ground slate points, firekits and flaked stone bifaces, often of elaborated mortuary form. Copious amounts of red ocher in most graves provided the basis for the early twentieth century name, “The Red Paint People, ” at a time when most of the known sites were excavated and largely destroyed. The present research involves reanalysis of most of the known mortuary assemblages, increasing the number of published site assemblages from 25 to 37. Dating has been resolved to some degree, yielding five distinct burial periods spanning 5000 years. Regional analysis of the newly recognized patterns reveals systematic changes in cemetery site location through time, providing insight into mortuary symbolism, settlement structure, the social groups represented by the cemeteries, and culture contact in the Archaic period. The focus on regional analysis in mortuary studies is comparatively recent (e.g., Beck 1995) and in this case was made possible by the relatively high number of site assemblages preserved in the public and private domain.”
    -Robinson, Brian S.
    1996 A Regional Analysis of the Moorehead Burial Tradition: 8500-3700 BP. Archaeology of Eastern North America 24:95-147.

  6. Leah Hopkins

    Native people have been using ochre in New England and eastern North America for thousands of years (at least 8,000 to my knowledge) for ceremonies, offerings, burials, paint and dye. We still use it today for these things. The practice of typology of lithics (stone tools), is so flawed as it doesn’t take into account personal preference of the artist, nor does it leave room for acknowledgement of trade.

  7. Chief Carol Reynolds Boyce

    They are my ancestors, the Beothuk. I have a small tribe. My DNA matched the Red Ochre people, they are the Beothuk and the same Beothuk of Newfoundland Labrador who were declared extinct in approx. 1829. My grand fathers and uncle were original Beothuk who escaped the genocide. My other grandparents came from Maine and are also of the first New England going back to the pilgrims and Jamestown. My tribe you may find on Facebook: Beothuk Tribe of NFLD & N. America Reservation Nation. Morehead is also correct, some are more recent because my family also came to Maine. I have records, and obituary. Perhaps one day, people will stop the bone digging of my grandfathers and grandmothers and allow me to repatriate their remains and lay them to rest and return our lands that were stole from our people. I am the Red Ochre people/ Beothuk and I am not extinct! Can you imagine if you were me and your grandparents were being dug up from their sacred burial grounds and you are mocked when you tell the world that your DNA proves that you are Beothuk. The Creator is watching and the ancestors are going to be heard what has been done. I am also a Chaplain and a teacher. I want our sacred grounds returned and to repatriate my people. Hear me, Sincerely, Chief Carol Reynolds Boyce (Soolien) of Beothuk Tribe of NFLD and North America Reservation Nation

    • Godspeed to you and your mission/vision, Chief. I was involved in the Wenatchee Points controversy some decades ago (on the side of the Colville Confederation), and I’m amazed at how little progress has been made since then, both in archaeology and in general. I know from experience there are many non-tribal archaeologists who agree with you, and hopefully one day soon they will add their voices to yours.

  8. Godspeed to you and your mission/vision, Chief. I was involved in the Wenatchee Points controversy some decades ago (on the side of the Colville Confederation), and I’m amazed at how little progress has been made since then, both in archaeology and in general. I know from experience there are many non-tribal archaeologists who agree with you, and hopefully one day soon they will add their voices to yours.

  9. There is a red ochre site with a supposed gravesite in Fremont,NH when Fremont was 11,000 years ago a seaside community. The ocean originally came as far west as Route 125. There was in the 1890’s a large red paint ochre business in Fremont consisting of two or three buildings. Part of the Fremont red ochre site has been turned into a gravel pit but there is still enough of the site left that it should be researched more.

  10. I first heard about them on an episode of PBS’ science series NOVA some time back in the 1980s. I wish we knew more
    about them. That actually makes the Red Paint People, not the Native Americans, the First Americans. Since they were here before the Native Americans.

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