Granite Geek: There Were Humans In New Hampshire Before There Were Forests

Apr 14, 2015

New Hampshire is known today for its picturesque forests, but archeologists believe there were few, if any, forests in the area when humans arrived some 12-13,000 years ago.
Credit Natalia Curtiss via Flickr/CC - http://ow.ly/LBtNR

It was 1623 when European settlers established their first fishing colony in the area around the Piscataqua River.  That was nearly 400 years ago – and yet the period between then and now is just a small part of the human history of the area we now call New Hampshire.

This month’s Science Café discussion looks at who lived in this area before Europeans. The moderator of Wednesday night’s event at Killarney’s Irish Pub in Nashua is David Brooks, who writes the weekly Granite Geek science column for the Nashua Telegraph and GraniteGeek.org. He joined All Things Considered with a preview of the discussion.

I mentioned when Europeans first started arriving in the 17th century – but what’s the other end of this pre-European window? When do humans first start appearing in this part of the world?

The other end of this is the glaciers, of course, because when we were covered with half a mile of ice there wasn't anything living here. Glaciers retreated from New Hampshire, started receding about 15,000 years ago and were probably completely gone about 13,000 years ago. And the earliest evidence of human habitation in the state is out in the southwest corner, about 12,500 years ago. So it did not take very long after the glaciers retreated before people were here.

We’ve talked about how the fossil record for creatures like mammoths and the like hasn't been that great in this state because of our geology. What about for humans?

It turns out there is much more evidence out there in the woods and amongst the rocks than you'd think. The interesting part of this to me is the glaciers pretty much killed everything, so when they retreated there were no trees here. It was sort of like northern Labrador is right now - a land of bushes and lichen, maybe. Chances are humans got here before trees did, to a large extent, certainly before the forests did. We were here before the woods - the woods are an invasive species as far as human beings are concerned in New Hampshire.

It's interesting to think there were people here. Probably they came here hunting caribou - that's the idea by one of our panelists, Richard Boisvert,. He's the New Hampshire state archeologist. That's his idea, that they were following the caribou herds; the caribou herds came here after the glaciers retreated.

Most people don't have a good sense that there is any archeology in New Hampshire. The people arrived here a long time ago, they didn't build any pyramids or any huge stone structures that have survived over time. But there is, as it turns out, a reasonable amount of evidence scattered in the woods. And one of the things that has kept you and I from knowing about it is - well, they don't like to publicize the sites, because, frankly, people will come and poke around in them and maybe steal stuff. The drawback of this: people don't think there's any archeology going on so they don't fund it, they don't support it.

So there are people who are starting to look through this record of evidence, but not nearly as many as there might be. And as a result, we know less about what has happened over those 10,000 or so years than we might.

I think that's fair to say. And I think it's also fair to say that it'd be hard to find. Most of the people who were living here lived a relatively nomadic existence. They'd sometimes settle around Amoskeag Falls or something for the year or during the parts of the season when the fish were really running, but they didn't have lot of permanent settlements. So a lack of that makes it a little difficult for archeological evidence. In my neck of the woods, around Souhegan Valley, for example, there's been a few burial sites they've found along the Souhegan River, although you'd be hard pressed to know - and I certainly do not know where they are, because they don't want to tell people for those same reasons - I believe that's the main evidence of pre-colonial people here. So it's not easy to do this stuff at all, but it's there.

Is it ironic at all that this look at pre-European history is taking place at an Irish pub?

I hadn't thought of that. We couldn't find like a Penacook Pub, or  - I don't know what fermented alcohol was drunk before the Europeans were here, birch beer or something like that, but those were few and far between. We're perfectly happy to be at Killarney's; we've been there for a couple of years and we like it.