Maine seabirds in the archaeological record

8 10 2009
The Isles of Shoals off the New England coast

The Isles of Shoals: one of the most important 17th century commercial fisheries in the Gulf of Maine (image credit: Hamilton, Seeley, Brack)

Some very cool news out of the Isles of Shoals in the Gulf of Maine: Nathan Hamilton, Robin Hadlock Seeley and Ingrid Brack recently presented their archaelogical findings from Smuttynose Island where excavations have revealed a diverse array of animal remains dating back to the era before recorded history. Around 50,000 bone specimens were recovered, representing mammals, fish, marine gastropods, and, of particular interest to SEANET, birds. These remains reflect human consumption of various animal resources, and can be used to check against written records of life on the islands back as far as 1620 and the arrival of European settlers.

Example of study pit. The darker soils at the bottom likely date back to 900-1200 AD.

Example of study pit. The darker soils at the bottom likely date back to 900-1200 AD. (image credit Hamilton, Seeley, Brack)

Of note, a large number of duck bones were found throughout the layers of deposited earth, indicating their consistent harvest throughout history. Gulls, described as “Herring Gull size”, were found in especially large numbers at depths representing the years 1640-1690. These bones bear butchery marks, and the gulls were apparently hunted and eaten to the point of population collapse before the start of the 18th century when they all but disappear from the archaeological record. Other wild bird remains found included loon, cormorant, grouse, grebe, bittern, and assorted shorebirds, apparently reflecting the opportunistic gustatory habits of Shoals inhabitants.

Remains of the now extinct Great Auk were also found, dating to the 18th century; these may be the first remains of the species found in this region from the era of recorded history–all other Great Auk bones found in the Gulf of Maine have dated back to the time before Europeans arrived in North America.

SEANET is fascinated by these findings, and intrigued by what these results mean for the understanding of gulls, in particular. Gulls are now actively removed or deterred from tern breeding islands since the larger gulls will supplant their smaller counterparts if left to their own devices. While Herring Gull populations reached a peak in the 1960s and 70s, likely associated with anthropogenic food sources like landfills, it remains unclear what their populations were in prehistory or even during the time when they were heavily predated by European settlers in the 1600s. Were there more gulls then than now? Fewer? How did a large gull population interact with tern breeding colonies back then? Were gulls overrepresented in the archaeological record on Smuttynose because they were breeding there, or because they were attracted to discards from fishing activities there? Or do the records reflect the true abundance of the gulls in the 1600s?

We will likely never know some of the answers to these questions, but SEANET will keep an ear open for more such archaeological data that may shed more light on the topic.

Thanks to the authors of this poster for letting us share it with the SEANET community!

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