Martha's Vineyard Atlas of LifeSpecies Lists“Island Life” Introduction and EssaysIsland Life: Archaeology and Anthropology


Archaeology and Anthropology

A discussion of these subjects would not normally have place in a work of this kind. However, studies done by many authors over the years have contributed both directly and tangentially to what we know today about the island’s natural history. In many ways, the disciplines of geology, archaeology and anthropology blend together. Geologists have often found plant or animal remains that shed light on climatic conditions in the distant past. Both archaeologists and anthropologists researching ancient sites left by prehistoric peoples have discovered which plants and animals formed these peoples’ diets. This information has contributed greatly to our knowledge of the historical fauna and flora of the island in the distant past. In other words, the result of one line of inquiry often overlaps significantly with others and provides insights unavailable otherwise. The balance of this chapter will attempt to provide only a very general outline of the work that has been done here and identify the major publications the interested reader may want to examine in greater detail.

To begin with, among the earlier geologists to visit the island was Sir Charles Lyell (1844, 1845), a close personal friend and supporter of Charles Darwin, who reported archaeological finds such as a recent Walrus skull as well as detailed geological observations. Later, Guernsey (1916) published a report of archaeological work done on the island in an anthropological journal. Byers and Johnson (1940) and Byers (1941) described archaeological sites of indigenous peoples in which evidence of prehistoric populations of several mammal and bird species were found. Speck (1948) reported on the use of marine life by the Wampanoags. Ritchie (1965, 1966a, 1966b, 1968) wrote extensively about archaeological digs here that shed light not only on indigenous culture but also on the food animals they harvested from the environment. Huntington (1959, 1962) reported on the animal food supply of Vineyard Native Americans. J. H. Waters wrote widely in the archaeological literature about the animals found in Native American kitchen middens: turtles (1962, 1966), foxes (1963b, 1967b), Gray Seals (1967c), marine mollusks (1969), and animal remains generally (1967a). Waters and Rivard (1962) discussed the earlier distribution of both terrestrial and marine mammals based on archaeological studies. Perlman (1977) compared an optimum diet model for the hunter-gatherer population on the island from 3,000 years ago until 1,000 years ago with the animals and birds actually identified from kitchen midden sites. Most recently, Mires (1998), Chilton and Doucette (1999, 2002a, 2002b), McWeeney (1999, 2000), Largy and Burns (2001), and L. Shaw (2001) all discussed the important archaeological site at Lucy Vincent Beach in Chilmark, which shows evidence possibly of seasonal occupation for 9,000-10,000 years up until only about 200 years ago. 

Anthropological writings about the island’s original indigenous inhabitants began very shortly after the arrival of the first European settlers. Most of these writings focused primarily on cultural issues. M. Mayhew (1694), E. Mayhew (1709, 1724), Jernegan and Bassett (1764), Tripp (1893), E. R. Mayhew (1959), and Riggs (1962) all discuss the Christian tradition of the island’s Wampanoag population. Schoolcraft (1846), Banks (1911), Knight (1925), Speck (1928a), Scoville (1970), Bonfanti (1972), and Scaglion (1974) all discuss the legends and mythology of the Aquinnah tribe. Tantaquidgeon (1930a) wrote of the Wampanoags’ straw baskets, and Fewkes (1941) described their pottery making. General history and culture is reviewed in a variety of ways by Bassett (1792), Gookin (1792, 1795), Earle (1861), Pease (1871), J. Miller (1880), Chase (1885), Vanderhoop (1904), Mooney (1907, 1910), Speck (1928b), Flannery (1939), Huntington (1956, 1961), Travers (1957, 1960), Huden (1962),  Richardson (1965), Attaquin (1970), and Manning (2001). A general survey of the historic and archaeological resources that shed light on the prehistory and early history of the indigenous peoples of Cape Cod and the islands is provided by Connolly (1987).

A brief summary based on Richardson (1983, 1985) of what has been learned about the first inhabitants of the island through the research cited above is as follows. As discussed in the chapter on Geology, 18,000 years ago what is now Martha’s Vineyard was partially covered by the Wisconsinan ice sheet. Because the ocean level was 350-400 feet lower than today, dry land extended at least 70 miles south toward the edge of the continental shelf at that time. As described in the chapter on Vascular Plants, boreal spruce forest existed south of the ice sheet which was certainly inhabited by birds, mammals, etc. which only occur today in arctic and sub-arctic habitats far to the north.

 Most of what is now New England was free of the glacier by 12,000 years ago. Meanwhile, at that time the first human inhabitants had arrived and lived on the Coastal Plain, which then was also home to the wide variety of game animals listed in the Mammal chapter. By 9,000-10,000 years ago, hardwood forest had begun to replace the boreal spruce forest where the island is today. Also, there is evidence of the presence of the first indigenous residents on the part of the Coastal Plain that is Martha’s Vineyard by this time. These first residents primarily hunted large mammals, probably including mammoths. The seashore was still about 35-45 miles away, too far from what is now the island to provide a year-round source of food. The ocean level was then about 120 feet below its present level. 

By about 5,000-6,000 years ago, the sea had risen enough to separate the island from what is now mainland Massachusetts. The people here then lived in a coastal environment and began to use the food resources they found there (Speck, 1948; Richardson, 1965). Many of the sites at which they must have lived then have been covered by the sea as it has continued to rise (Chilton and Doucette 2002a). These sites are thus not available for archaeological study. It has been estimated that the south coast of the island has been eroded by about a half mile in the last 200 years alone (Ogden, 1974), partly due to rising sea levels. However, analysis of sites that are still available has shown that the Wampanoag hunter-gatherer culture evolved significantly over the last 3,500 years (Ritchie, 1966a; Perlman, 1977; Halligan, 2000). Some encampment sites that have been studied appear to have been occupied more or less continually for at least this entire period, right up to the arrival of the first European settlers in 1642. It seems likely that sites on the ocean-front were used during the warmer months and more protected interior sites used in winter. Over this timespan, increasing use was made of fish, quahogs, oysters, clams, scallops, and mussels as well as deer, seals, smaller mammals, and a few cetaceans. By 1,000 years ago, the first evidence of domesticated plants such as tobacco, maize, beans and squash appears in the archaeological record along with well-developed pottery and baskets.

By the time of Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold’s arrival in 1602, the Wampanoags were living in villages of circular, bark-covered wigwams. The total island population at that time has been estimated at about 3,000 persons (Silverman, 2005). Their activities included hunting mammals on land and sea, fishing, collecting shellfish and useful native plants, and farming various crops. Their culture had evolved into a much more sophisticated one than that of their forebears nine or so centuries earlier. When the first European settlers arrived in 1642, the established Indian political subdivisions were six Sachemdoms with clearly defined boundaries. Unfortunately, the arrival of Europeans was shortly followed by diseases against which the native people had no biological defenses, as also occurred elsewhere in New England. In large part due to epidemics in 1643, 1645, the 1690’s and early 1700’s, the island’s Wampanoag population fell sharply to about 1,500 by 1674 (Gookin, 1792), 500-600 by about 1740, and to about 400 in 1786, after which it fluctuated little until the late 1800’s (Silverman, 2005). 

The historical work by Banks (1911, Vol. 3) totally ignored the genealogy of the Wampanoags, an oversight now rectified by the excellent book by Segal and Pierce (2003) in which the family relationships of 1,654 persons are traced. But the most important book about the history of the resident Wampanoag tribe from 1600 to 1871 is that of Silverman (2005). This book traces the way in which the natives and the colonists lived together without the violence that erupted in several places on the mainland. The role of Christianity in intercultural relations and community life is documented in detail and provides the backdrop for the adaptability by both sides, but especially by the Wampanoags, to the invasion by the English colonists.


Attaquin, H. A. A. 1970. A brief history of Gay Head, or “Aquiniuh”. Published by the author, Aquinnah, MA. 47 pp.

Baldwin, H. I.  1928. The trees of Nantucket: early records throw light on the much discussed question of whether there were ever forests on the island. American Forests and Forest Life. Vol. 34, pp. 664, 665, 684.  

Bassett, B. 1792. Fabulous traditions and customs of the Indians of Martha’s Vineyard. Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Sociey. Cambridge, Vol. 1:139-140.

Bonfanti, L. 1972. Biographies and legends of the New England Indians. Vol. III. Pride Publications, Wakefield, MA.,

Brereton, J. 1602. A briefe and true relation of the discoverie on the north part of Virginia

Reprinted in: Quinn, D. B. and A. M. Quinn, eds. 1983. The English New England voyages, 1602-1608. The Hakluyt Society, Series II, Vol. 161. London. 

Byers, D. S. 1941. A further note on the Squibnocket Cliff shell heap. American Antiquity7(1):68.

Byers, D. S. and F. Johnson. 1940. Two sites on Martha’s Vineyard. Papers of the Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology 1(1):1-103. 

Capece, J. 2001.  Land-use history of Cape Poge and Wasque. The Trustees of Reservations. Vineyard Haven, MA. 

Chase, H. E. 1885. Notes on the Wampanoag Indians. Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for 1883. Washington, D.C., pp. 878-908.

Chilton, E. S. and D. L. Doucette. 1999. Summary report on burial #3 Lucy Vincent Beach site (19-DK-148). Submitted to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, Boston, Massachusetts, March 1999.

———————————– 2002a. Archaeological investigations at the Lucy Vincent beach site (19-DK-148): preliminary results and interpretations. In A lasting impression: coastal, lithic, and ceramic research in New England archaeology, J. Kerber (ed.), Praeger, Westport, CT. pp. 41-70. 

———————————– 2002b. The archaeology of coastal New England: the view from Martha’s Vineyard. Northeast Anthropology, No. 64, pp. 55-66. 

Cogbill, C. V., J. Burk and G. Motzkin. 2002. The forests of pre-settlement New England, USA: spatial and compositional patterns based on Town Proprietor Surveys. Journal of Biogeography 29(10-11):1279-1304.

Connolly, M. J. 1987. Historic and archaeological resources of Cape Cod and the islandsMassachusetts Historical Commission, Office of the Massachusetts Secretary of State, Boston. 432 pp. 

Cronon, W. 1983. Changes in the land: Indians, colonists, and the ecology of New England. Hill and Wang. New York.

Earle, J. M. 1861. Report concerning the Indians of the Commonwealth. Massachusetts Senate Document No. 96.

Fewkes, V. 1941. A preliminary report on pottery making at Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. American Antiquity 7(1):67-68.

Flannery, R. 1939. An analysis of Coastal Algonkian Culture. The Catholic University of America Anthropological Series, No. 7.

Gookin, D. 1792. Descriptions of the New England Indians in 1674. Massachusetts Historical Collections, Boston, Vol. 3.

————- 1795. Some accounts of the Indians of Martha’s Vineyard. Massachusetts Historical Collections, Boston, MA. Vol. 3.

Guernsey, S. J. 1916. Notes on archaeological explorations of Martha’s Vineyard. American Anthropologist. 18(1):81-97.

Halligan, J. J. 2000. Maushop’s legacy: cultural continuity on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, 7000 years ago to the present. Unpublished senior honors thesis, Department of Anthropology, Harvard University.

Hoyt, E. P. 1978. Nantucket: the life of an island. Stephen Green Press Inc., Brattleboro, VT.

Huden, J. C. 1962. Indian place names of New England. Indian Notes, Museum of the American Indian. Published by the Heye Foundation, New York.

Huntington, E. G. 1956. The Indians and the explorers. Pages 17-23, In Martha’s Vineyard, a short history and guide, E. R. Mayhew, ed. Dukes County Historical Society; Reynolds Printing Inc., New Bedford, MA. 160 pp.

——————–  1959. An archaeological study from Martha’s Vineyard. The Dukes County Intelligencer, 1(2):17-37. 

——————–  1961. A cache of Indian artifacts donated by George Magnuson. The Dukes County Intelligencer, 2(3):52-53.

———————  1962. The animal food supply of Vineyard Indians. The Dukes County Intelligencer, 4(2):32-39. 

Jernegan, W. and B. Bassett. 1764. Reports on the Indian population of Martha’s VineyardBoston.

Knight, M. F. 1925. Wampanoag Indian tales. Journal of American Folklore, 38(?):134 -137.

Manning, H. E. V. 2001. Moshup’s footsteps. Blue Cloud Across the Moon Publishing Co., Aquinnah, MA. 56 pp.

Mayhew, E. R. 1959. The Christiantown story, 1659-1959. The Dukes County Intelligencer1(1):1-10.

Mayhew, E. 1709. Massachusetts Psalter or Psalms of David. [published in Algonkian]. Boston. 

————–  1724. Indian Converts, or some account of the lives and dying speeches of a considerable number of the Christianized Indians of Martha’s Vineyard, in New England. Published by J. Osborn and T. Longmans, London. 310 pp.

Mayhew, M. 1694. A brief narrative of the success which the Gospel hath had, among the Indians of Martha’s Vineyard (and places adjacent), in New England. With some remarkable curiosities, concerning the numbers, the customes, and present circumstances of the Indians of that island. Bartholemew and Green, Boston, 55 pp.

Miller, J. 1880. Notes concerning the Wampanoag tribe of Indians. Providence; p. 148. 

Mires, A. M. 1998. Burial summary: Lucy Vincent Beach site (19-DK-148). Report submitted to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, Boston, Massachusetts, September 1998.

 Mooney, J. 1907. Martha’s Vineyard Indians. Bulletin of the Bureau of American Ethnology30:810.

————-  1910. Wampanoag. Bulletin of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 30:903-904.

Pease, R. L. 1871. Report of the Commissioners on Questions of title to land and all boundary lines at Gay Head. Boston.  

Perlman, S. M. 1977. Optimum diet models and prehistoric hunter-gatherers: a test on Martha’s Vineyard. Ph.D. thesis, University of Massachusetts. 244 pp.

Raleigh, L. 2000.  Land-use history of Long Point Wildlife Refuge.  The Trustees of Reservations. Vineyard Haven, MA.

Richardson, J. B. III. 1965. Changing subsistence economy on Martha’s Vineyard. Manuscript prepared for a seminar on Human Ecology, University of Illinois.

————————  1974. Bibliography of the archaeology, anthropology, botany, geology and zoology of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. The Dukes County Intelligencer, 15(4):130-148 and 16(1):28-29.

————————  1983. Early man on Martha’s Vineyard. Carnegie Magazine, 56(6):28-37.

————————  1985. Prehistoric man on Martha’s Vineyard. Oceanus. 28(1):35-42. 

Riggs, S. N. 1962. Christian Indians of Colonial Massachusetts. The Dukes County Intelligencer4(1):3-9.

Ritchie, W. A. 1965. The small stemmed point in New England. Pennsylvania Archaeologist35:134-138.

—————-  1966a. 3,600 years of coastal adaptation on Martha’s Vineyard, MassachusettsPaper presented at the Society for American Archaeology Meeting, Reno, Nevada.

—————-  1966b. A culture sequence and chronology on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts: a study in coastal ecology and adaptation. Paper presented at the Northeastern Anthropological Meeting, Amherst, Massachusetts.

—————-  1969. The archeology of Martha’s Vineyard: A Framework for the Prehistory of Southern New England – A Study in Coastal Ecology and Adaptation. The Natural History Press, Garden City, NY. 253 pp.

Scaglion, R. 1974. The Moshop tale: a chronological analysis of a Wampanoag Indian myth. The Dukes County Intelligencer, 16(1):19-26.

Schneider, P. 2000. The enduring shore: a history of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket. Henry Holt and Company. New York.

Schoolcraft, H. R. 1846. Moshup, or the giant of No[e]pe. In The Opal, pp. 197-201, J. Keese, Ed.

Scoville, D. R. 1970. Indian legends of Martha’s Vineyard. Sponsored by Dukes County Historical Society. Published by the author, Oak Bluffs, MA. 28 pp. 

Segel, J. D. and R. A. Pierce. 2003. The Wampanoag Genealogical History of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Genealogical Publishing Co. Inc., Baltimore, MD. 677 pp.

Silverman, D. J. 2005. Faith and boundaries: colonists, Christianity, and community among the Wampanoag Indians of Martha’s Vineyard, 1600-1871. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. 303 pp.                         

Speck, F. G. 1928a. Mythology of the Wampanoag. El Palacio, Santa Fe, 25:83-86.

————–  1928b. Terrritorial subdivisions and boundaries of the Wampanoag, Massachusetts, and Nauset Indians. Indian Notes and Monographs, Museum of American Indians, published by the Heye Foundation, New York, Series 2, Vol. 44:7-152.

————–  1948. Utilization of marine life by the Wampanoag Indians of Massachusetts. Journal of the Washington Academy of Science, 38:257-265.

Shaw, L. 2001. Shell analysis for the Lucy Vincent site, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Ms. in possession of the author.

Tantaquidgeon, G. 1930a. Newly discovered straw basketry of the Wampanoag Indians. Indian Notes, Museum of the American Indian. Published by the Heye Foundation, New York. Vol. 7, pp. 475-484.

———————-  1930b. Notes on the Gay Head Indians of Massachusetts. Indian Notes, Museum of the American Indian. Published by the Heye Foundation, New York. Vol. 7, 1-26.

Travers, M. A. 1957. The Wampanoag Indian Federation of the Algonquin Nation. New Bedford. 245 pp.

—————–  1960. The Wampanoag Indian Tribute Tribes of Martha’s Vineyard. Reynolds Publishing, New Bedford. 78 pp.

Tripp, J. 1893. Native church at Gay Head. Magazine of New England History. 3(4):250 -253. [reprinted from Zion’s Advocate, September 1831.].

Vanderhoop, M. A. 1904. The Gay Head Indians. New Bedford Standard. [republished in Vineyard Gazette, June-October, 1920].

Waters, J. H. 1962. Former distribution of the Red-bellied Turtle in the Northeast. Copeia, 3:649-651.

————–  1963a. Biochemical relationships of the Mouse Peromyscus in New England. Systematic Zoology, 12(3):122-133.   

————–  1963b. Red Fox and Gray Fox from New England archaeological sites. Journal of Mammology, 45(2):307-308.

————–  1966. Second find of Red-bellied Turtle on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Copeia, 7:592.  

————— 1967a. Animal remains from archaeological sites on Martha’s Vineyard. The Dukes County Intelligencer, 9(2):60-67.

—————  1967b. Foxes on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Journal of Mammalogy, 48:137-138.

—————  1967c. Gray Seal remains from southern New England archaeological sites. Journal of Mammalogy, 48:139-141. 

—————  1969. Temporal fluctuations in marine mollusk populations as indicated by pre-Columbian shell heaps on Martha’s Vineyard. The Dukes County Intelligencer, 10(4):230-238.

Whitmore, F. C. Jr., K. O. Emery, H. B. S. Cooke, and D. J. P. Swift. 1967. Elephant teeth from the Atlantic continental shelf. Science 156(3781):1477-1481.