Archaeological evidence suggests that the Beothuk inhabited Newfoundland long before European colonization and that they may be descended from earlier people who occupied the Island for several thousand years.
Beothuk ("the people" or "true people") were the now-extinct inhabitants of Newfoundland. Word lists transcribed in the 18th or early 19th centuries indicate an Algonquian linguistic affiliation. At the time of European contact, the Beothuk occupied at least the south and northeast coasts of Newfoundland. They may have numbered no more than 500 to 1000; their population is difficult to estimate owing to a contraction in their territories in the early contact period and the absence of surviving documentation.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the Beothuk inhabited Newfoundland long before European colonization and that they may be descended from earlier people who occupied the Island for several thousand years. In prehistoric times, they seem to have been primarily a coastal people organized in small bands throughout the various bays to fish and hunt seals, other sea mammals and birds. They also may have visited interior locations to take caribou at river crossings, but the pattern of a winter-long interior occupation does not seem to have occurred until postcontact times.
In both the prehistoric and historic periods, the Beothuk dwelt in bark- or skin-covered tents in summer and in semisubterranean houses during the cold months. Bows and arrows, harpoons and spears were used in hunting, which often took place from seaworthy bark canoes with a high prow and stern and a sheer which rose markedly amidships. However, the most distinctive of Beothuk artifacts are carved bone, antler and ivory pendants intricately decorated with incised patterns. Many of these items were recovered from grave sites in caves or rock shelters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Another notable feature of Beothuk culture was the people's lavish use of powdered hematite, or red ochre, with which they painted their canoes, other artifacts and even their bodies. Since these people were the first North American aborigines encountered by Europeans, it is possible that their custom of using red ochre was responsible for the sobriquet "Red Indians," which was later applied to all First Nations peoples.
As a result of European encroachment, slaughter and diseases to which they had no natural resistance, the Beothuk's numbers diminished rapidly following contact. The last known surviving Beothuk, Shawnadithit, died of tuberculosis in St John's in June 1829.
J.P. Howley, The Beothuks or Red Indians (1915); Ralph Pastore, Shanawdithit's People: the Archaeology of the Beothuks(1992); F.W. Rowe, Extinction: The Beothuks of Newfoundland (1977) .