WELLS, Maine — History books show that Maine was settled by Europeans the early 1600s, but the state’s indigenous people called Maine home for thousands of years before that.
Wells Reserve at Laudholm recently hosted Chris Sockalexis, the historic preservation officer for the Penobscot Nation, who spent the day introducing people to the long history of the indigenous people of Maine.
Sockalexis said environmental changes, like sea level rise, along with modern day infrastructure projects are threatening the historic sites of these ancient civilizations. Indian burial sites are often jeopardized during road and sewer projects in Maine, and sea level rise is causing the erosion of artifacts and bedrock carvings called petroglyphs that are several thousands of years old.
In his presentation entitled “12,000 years in Maine” Sockalexis talked of vibrant indigenous tribes that roamed the land, moving with the herd and advancing in their discoveries, tools, hunting, fishing and agriculture over thousands of years.
Shell heaps called shell middens found along the coastline are evidence of paleolithic people dating back at least 12,000 years, Sockalexis said. There are over 2,000 shell middens of various sizes identified along the Maine coastline, but the Whaleback midden in Damariscotta is thought to be the largest along the entire East Coast.
Whaleback, named for its shape, was once 30 feet deep with discarded shells and other related cultural materials that help anthropologists like Sockalexis paint a picture of Maine’s first inhabitants, and the life they led thousands of years ago.
These shell middens provide evidence of human activity including primitive stone and bone tools, and housing structures, he said. The calcium carbonate from the shell middens in the coastal settlements helps to preserve the artifacts better than that of more alkaline soil found inland in Maine.
“These shell heaps are just amazing for what they show us and tell us,” Sockalexis said. “We don’t know how many may be lost to sea level rise already.”
He said scientists from the University of Maine are working to preserve what’s left as best they can.
“Every time I go out to one of these sites, I take a million pictures to see how they are eroding. I’ve been going there for 30 years,” he said.
The shell middens, primitive villages and burial sites are largely discovered unintentionally, Sockalexis said. Researchers rarely just go out to dig. They’re discovered when roads are widened, buildings are built and sewer systems are installed or repaired.
Researchers are walking a delicate tightrope between discovery and sanctity, Sockalexis said. Some of the burial sites were excavated by archaeologists in the early 1900s, and the remains sent to Harvard University for research. Tribal leaders in Maine, including Sockalexis have been pressuring Harvard for the past several years to return the remains to the tribal nation. Some of the remains that were found are those of children.
“We want our ancestors back where they should be,” he said.