UMaine anthropologist unravels the myths that contradict the
artifacts unearthed in the land of birchbark canoes
An 1851 woodcut
engraving in Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion depicts
Maine's Passamaquoddy tribe members hunting porpoises. The
accompanying article in the weekly newspaper indicates that the
porpoises were shot, the retrieved with fish spears, all from
"frail" canoes. Porpoises or dolphins can weigh almost 300 pounds;
north Atlantic swordfish at the turn of the century averaged 300-400
pounds, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council report.
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When Zane Grey wasn't captivating
millions of readers with his Westerns, the prolific literary pioneer was
having his own hunting and fishing adventures. His prey included the
swordfish, which Grey characterized as "the noblest warrior of all the
"Lassoing mountain lions, hunting the grizzly bear, and stalking the
fierce tropical jaguar, former pastimes of ours, are hardly comparable
to the pursuit of Xiphias gladius," wrote Grey of the fish, whose Latin
name means gladiator.
Such depictions of broadbills can be found throughout history. Maritime
annals contain descriptions of the swordfish's "war-like" demeanor and
malicious ferocity. Turn-of-the-century newspaper headlines herald
stories of swordfish menacingly attacking fishermen and maniacally
piercing dories. Sports fishermen today characterize the broadbill
swordfish as an ocean predator like no other.
So how does an anthropologist explain the remains of such a beast-fish
in coastal archaeological sites in Maine and the Maritimes, where native
peoples traditionally traveled in birchbark canoes? For years, the
well-documented disposition of the feisty swordfish and lack of
archaeological record of boats opened the door to speculation that
peoples of the Late Archaic period, 5,000–3,800 years ago, must have
used dugout canoes for such treacherous ocean hunting.
University of Maine anthropologist David Sanger was one of the experts
who remained unconvinced that it was dugout technology that allowed
paleo-Indian fishermen to hunt swordfish in the Gulf of Maine. Such an
unfounded conclusion was the result of "stacking of one assumption upon
another," says Sanger, quoting his longtime colleague, noted
archaeologist James Wright of the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Birchbark canoes were more seaworthy, compared to hard-to-manage
In 1975, Sanger first wrote about aboriginal swordfish hunting, looking
at why the practice stopped on the Maine coast around 3,800 years ago.
One hypothesis is that there was a significant change in swordfish
range, brought on by cooling sea-surface temperatures; the other is that
a cultural shift occurred when a new way of life was introduced during
the Susquehanna period by peoples of the Chesapeake Bay region.
In subsequent years, Sanger has investigated swordfish behavior and
sea-surface conditions in an attempt to understand why coastal middens
younger than 3,800 years are void of pieces of swordfish bill, skeletal
remains and artifacts made with the swords. He has consulted
oceanographers and marine biologists about sea-surface conditions,
climate change, and fish physiology and behavior. Key to his research
were interviews with seven former swordfishermen from Nova Scotia who
hunted by harpoon, technology with striking similarities to that
unearthed in Late Archaic middens.
While the question is still open as to whether a change in culture or
climate occurred 3,800 years ago, the logistics of aboriginal swordfish
hunting are better understood — and debunked — as a result of Sanger's
"Anecdotal evidence has built up, and even some biological literature
suggests that the swordfish is pugnacious, implying volition," Sanger
says. "I wanted to find out if fishermen with face-to-face encounters
regard this fish as pugnacious."
Sanger and James Moreira, a folklorist and director of the Maine
Folklife Center on campus, interviewed long-time swordfishermen from
Nova Scotia who plied the waters off Maine and the Maritimes in the
1930s–50s using hand-thrown harpoons and dory retrieval.
Up until the 1960s, before the use of spotter aircraft, radar and
longlines, swordfishing in New England and Nova Scotia was largely still
done using a harpoon with attached retrieving line (about 100 fathoms or
183 meters) and an empty 10-gallon wooden keg as a float. The harpooner
stood on a pulpit projecting over the bow in order to get directly over
the fish, aiming for the body below the backbone and between the ribs.
Once the swordfish was struck, a dory was dispatched to retrieve the keg
and begin reeling in the catch.
Barbed harpoon heads, some with gouged holes for the retrieving line,
uncovered in archaeological sites in Maine thousands of years old,
clearly resemble technology used by modern swordfish hunters. The
earliest evidence of North American harpoon technology came from a
7,500-year-old burial site in Labrador. In the Late Archaic age, lines
could have been made from leather or plants. Line holes in the harpoons
indicate cordage of small diameter; attached to the line was probably a
float, perhaps made of inflated sealskin.
The seven Nova Scotia fishermen interviewed each landed an average of
300 swordfish per season while fishing a total of 80 seasons. Out of the
24,000 swordfish landings they witnessed, they could only cite a dozen
encounters in which dories or men were harmed.
"People hunting swordfish 4,000 years ago had to solve some of the same
problems swordfishermen have today, including how to land the fish
safely," Moreira says. "The behavior of the fish, presumably, has not
changed, and once early hunters understood that the fish would not, by
nature, attack the pursuing boat, then harpooning swordfish from a canoe
or any other small craft would become a viable pursuit."
Very real accounts — not just fish tales — of swordfish encounters with
marine vessels have been documented. In 1931, the Gloucester Times
published a photograph of the schooner Mary D'Eon with a swordfish
impaled in its wooden bow. In 1967, the research submersible Alvin from
the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was hit by a swordfish off the
east coast of Florida at a depth of 2,000 feet.
Sanger and Moreira came away from their ethnoarchaeological project in
Nova Scotia with eyewitness accounts of swordfish behavior that could
then be further explored with fish biologists. The swordfishermen talked
about the ease in approaching an adult of several hundred pounds basking
on the surface, even with a motorized vessel. They verified that, once
harpooned, the fish dives deep. If still alive when pulled aside the
dory, the fish is killed with a dagger in the gills.
Today, as documented by oceanographers, the Eastern Maine Coastal
Current running from Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy south to
Penobscot Bay is too cold for swordfish to be hunted regularly with
harpoon. Swordfish prefer to bask when sea-surface temperature hovers
around 60 degrees F, and where the food supply is high, as on the east
side of Georges Bank today.
The fact that so many swordfish occur in archaeological sites beside the
Eastern Maine Coastal Current indicates that their normal range extended
farther between 5,000 and 3,800 years ago than it does today. This
suggests a significant change in the coastal current's sea-surface
temperature. Lacking strong paleo-oceanographic data on the Gulf of
Maine, scientists speculate that rising sea level, increasing tides and
tidal mixing, as well as climatic cooling may have contributed to lower
by Margaret Nagle
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.