Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The History of Maine: Part 11 First Humans in Maine

Note: This program first aired on June 1, 2013.

We’re spending a few weeks here on the world around us, tracing the deep history of Maine, from its geological genesis to the current day. We’ve reached the third and final (for now) chapter in Maine’s deep history, and it is one we all have a hand in. Before we dive in though, lets quickly recap first two aspects of the existence of the Maine landscape.

About 600 million years ago the very faintest hints of the beginning of Maine were in the air. As a result of the constant movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates, coastal sediments were accreted on to the edge of the North American plate, and volcanic activity added new igneous rock to the mix as well, both above and below the surface. Additionally, little bits of continental plate that likely originated on the ancient European continent also became plastered to the edge of North America. By bits and pieces, the crust of Maine was formed. Two million years ago, the northern hemisphere entered an ice age, and continental glacier after continental glacier advanced over the Maine landscape, scouring and smoothing, and dumping the rocky sediment that challenges gardeners throughout the state.

The last glacier retreated from the state between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago, and the Maine landscape was likely recolonized with Arctic tundra plants, which were then rapidly outcompeted by a forest community as climate continued to warm. Paleopollen analysis indicates that the post glacial environment was mainly forested (with a variety of community compositions). So the types and sizes of trees may have been somewhat different, but after the glaciers left, Maine didn’t look shockingly different than it does today, at least to the casual observer. Botanists and foresters may argue this point, but I think it is important to understand that in the big picture, Maine is solidly a forest community.

It is likely that as soon as there was large game in the post glacial forest, people were here as well. There is archeological evidence to support this. And while there were multiple native cultures that flourished at various times during this post glacial epoch, current thinking posits that the native populations here had a relatively low population density (relative to southern New England or the southeast US), due to an almost entirely hunter gatherer lifestyle. Agriculture was  used in more southern regions, and in far southern Maine, but not in the majority of the state. So, early native populations had some kind of impact on the Maine environment, but it was strongly limited by the low population density and lifestyle. Geographically, evidence suggests that the native populations were concentrated on the coast, so for vast stretches of Maine, while there may have been human activity in the past 10,000 years, it left little impact.

In terms of human impact, European colonization was the turning point. It began in earnest in 1607 with the failed Popham colony, and the various French and English 17th century trading and fishing outposts. These early developments were entirely coastal, as transportation was water based. Just think about that for a moment. There were no roads, just overland foot paths. If you wanted to get anywhere you got in a boat. Think about how access to transportation, in this case, the water, must have guided settlement, and in fact, limited it to the thinnest of strips right along coastal waterways and eventually, up major rivers as well. European’s ties to the water, as well as conflict with the native populations kept the majority of human impact along the coast for nearly 200 years.                                     

We’ll look at what happened next, next week, when we finish the chapter of the human influence on the Maine landscape, and perhaps even peer into the future.


Terrific new book by Andrew Barton and friends The Changing Nature of the Maine Woods. Readable and excellent!

A classic: William Cronin’s Changes in the Land. This one looks at the impact of Native Americans on the primeval forest, and is definitely weighted more towards southern New England. Lots of good information though.

Recently Maine Public Broadcasting did an interesting call in show about the first people in Maine. Listen to it here: