Maine

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.

We know very little about them, but they did exist in Maine some 2000 to 6000 years ago. And we know they hunted swordfish along the coast from Brunswick to the St. John River.

Red Paint People

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, farmers and hunters knew about buried caches of red ochre. In at least one case, a thrifty Yankee mixed some of the coloring with seal oil to make a soft, muted paint.

Harvard Archaeologist Charles Willoughby first began documenting the people in 1892 with visits to grave sites in Bucksport, Alamoosook Lake and Ellsworth.

Phillips Andover archaeologist Warren Moorehead built on Willoughby’s findings in 1913. Moorehead compared later Indian relics to those found at the cemeteries of the Red Paint People. He concluded they were distinct from the later 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. No one, though, has found evidence to show its significance.

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 the graves were most likely recent.

Moorehead also theorized that a tidal wave or earthquake may have altered the coast. The ocean then submerged the sites of the Red Paint People’s villages,  leaving behind only cemeteries located 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 Findings

Later archaeologists found places where Red Paint People lived. They concluded they likely were hunters, fishermen and boat builders, as were later occupants of the land. And they know that burial sites containing red coloring have been found elsewhere in the world, including Europe. Those sites may be related to those in Maine.

An archaeologist named Bruce Bourque excavated a village site on the island of North Haven in Penobscot Bay. Years later, as a Bates College professor, he wrote a book called Swordfish Hunters. In it, he described how the Red Paint People hunted the dangerous and elusive swordfish, and how they created exquisite stone tools and bone ornaments.

But archaeologists still lack answers to questions about the early people who buried red ochre in the ground. They don’t know why they disappeared. And they still don’t know why the red ochre was so important.

This story was updated in 2019.

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