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The Beothuk people lived on the Canadian island of Newfoundland when the Europeans arrived in the late 15th and 16th centuries. They were regarded as a separate ethnic group who had lived on the island for at least 1,500 years.

Their origins are uncertain. Surviving examples of the Beothuk language appear to link it to the Algonquian languages, and recent DNA evidence seems to back this up. In 2007, tests were conducted on parts of the teeth of Nonosabasut and his wife Demasduit who were two of the last surviving Beothuk in the 1820s. These tests linked them to the Mikmaq people who lived on the Nova Scotia peninsula.

Algonquian languages were spoken across a large area of Canada, including the peninsula as well as in the Quebec and Labrador areas, opposite Newfoundland. This indicates that the Beothuk may have migrated from the mainland across the narrow northern entrance to the Gulf of St Lawrence, a distance of about nine miles. They would have seen the island from the mainland and perhaps escaped from an enemy by boat to the island. Or perhaps they were forced to migrate due to famine.

Their first migration is thought to have occurred about 2,000 years ago. The Beothuk went through four cultural phases, each lasting up to about 500 years, suggesting further migration waves.

The DNA testing also showed the Beothuk had only Native American ancestry, quashing an earlier theory that they also had European blood. They may have had early European contact though, when Norse seafarers around 1000 CE encountered people in Newfoundland they called “skraelings”, meaning barbarians.

The Beothuk lived throughout the island, especially around the bays of Notre Dame and Bonavista along the northern coast. Recent estimates of their number at the time of European contact in the late 15th century are 500-700. They were hunter-gatherers who lived in small tribal groups of 30-60 people.

Their conical shaped houses, or “mamateeks,” were made of a number of sticks leaning inwards and tied at the top before the structure was covered  with birch bark. Extra padding was laid over it in winter. A fireplace for cooking and warmth was dug in the middle. They painted their bodies with red ochre, giving rise to the early European description as “Red Indians.” Their houses, most possessions and even their babies were smeared with this ochre.

Food sources included caribou, seals, salmon and other animals, as well as an assortment of plants. They trapped deer by erecting a line of fencing up to 30-40 miles long. A pudding was made from great auk eggs. They would build up a store of food in their houses for winter. Animal skins were used as clothing. They made canoes of bark.

Regular European contact began in 1497 when John Cabot, an Italian explorer sponsored by the English, set foot on Newfoundland soil. Unlike many indigenous peoples, the Beothuk avoided European contact, moving inland as the new settlements expanded. There was fierce competition between the Beothuk and the newcomers for food and other natural resources and many violent encounters ended in bloodshed. The migrants could be quite cruel towards the Beothuk, leading to many retaliatory attacks by the local people although they seemed reluctant to use firearms.

During the colonial period, other native groups moved to Newfoundland, resulting in loss of territory, causing cultural frictions and placing extra pressure on resources. Mikmaq came from Nova Scotia while Inuit migrated from Labrador as tensions between these groups and Europeans escalated on the mainland. The Beothuk fought these new arrivals as well as the Europeans.

Their numbers declined for these reasons plus disease. They had no immunity to infectious diseases of the Europeans such as smallpox, and also suffered from tuberculosis. Officially, the last surviving Beothuk, Shanawdithit, died of tuberculosis in 1829 aged just 28. Her grave at St. Mary the Virgin Church in St. John’s had to make way for railway construction in 1903. A monument marks the site of the church and her grave. She is well known in Newfoundland.

With Shanawdithit’s passing, the Beothuk race was declared extinct. However, there may have been a few survivors in the Exploits River and Twillingate areas of Newfoundland and also in Labrador. They may have married into European-Canadian, Mikmaq and Inuit families. In 1910, a 75 year old woman, Santu Toney, claimed she had a Beothuk father and Mikmaq mother and recorded a song in Beothuk for Frank Speck, an American anthropologist.

Some scholars believe the Beothuk ultimately became extinct due to European genocide rather than solely through fighting, loss of food sources and disease. They argue that the Tasmanian Aborigines in Australia met a similar fate.

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