Red Paint People

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Red Paint People

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

In the early decades of the twentieth century, archaeological discoveries along the Canadian Maritime Provinces and the Maine seacoast sparked a controversy that, one hundred years later, still rages. Burial sites lined with red ochre, some graves so old that the bones had disappeared, were found in coastal areas and islands separated by hundreds of miles. Who dug these graves and went to so much trouble to care for their departed loved ones?

The Red Paint People, as they came to be called, apparently had a religion with a high degree of ritual sophistication concerning afterlife. But if early dating estimates are reliable, they had developed this religion perhaps as early as two thousand years before the Egyptian pyramids were built.

In the years following the initial discoveries, further sites were found from the Canadian North Atlantic down to New York State, and all the way west to Lake Champlain, possibly even as far as the Great Lakes. The Red Paint people would have predated the elaborate Mound Builders of the Ohio Valley by some four thousand years.

Who were they? Where did they come from?

Conservative archaeologists immediately went to work. They insisted the estimated dates were wrong and that the sites couldn't be that old. (The partially tonguein-cheek complaint of the traditional archaeologist is always, "But it can't be authentic because it isn't supposed to be here!") But with the invention of carbon dating, the original estimates were proved accurate.

Original theories had deduced Northern European ancestors for the Red Paint People. The same red ochre religious burial practices had been found ringing the North Atlantic all the way to Norway. Archaeological digs in Maine had turned up swordfish bones and other evidence suggesting the Red Paint People of the Americas had developed deepwater navigation and fishing techniques. The implication was that if people could fish way out in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, they could certainly cross it, perhaps following the glacier face and even camping along its base for long periods at a time.

But that flew in the face of an archaeological community that didn't even want to admit Viking presence in America until forced to do so by incontrovertible evidence discovered in the 1950s. If America was home to a pre-Columbian, preNorse civilization, it would mark a death blow to those who refused to accept the theory of "diffusion," of cultural transfer from place to place in ancient times.

Diffusion had become a discredited archaeological theory. The establishment refused to endorse it. Thor Heyerdahl had fought the good fight with his Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947, suggesting that ancient people did have the know-how and gumption to travel great distances over water, carrying their religion and technology with them. But even though his theories proved popular to the general public, the archaeological establishment refused to accept them.

So that was that. There was no European presence in the Americas before Columbus. End of story.

But the argument would not go away. So-called monks' caves, exact replicas of very early Christian monks' cells and prayer chapels, existing to this day along the west coasts of Ireland and the outer islands of Britain, were discovered all over New England. What were they?

Colonial storage cellars, said the experts; certainly nothing do with preColumbian Christianity, and absolutely nothing to do with ancient religion, either.

Others pointed out that they have doors that are much too small for storage cellars and that they have been called "monks' caves" from the beginning of colonial history. Furthermore, sometimes they seem to be placed with regard to solar alignments. But most of all, they look just like their European counterparts.

Detractors claim that any resemblance is purely coincidental because early Europeans could not have crossed the Atlantic, while proponents of the diffusion theory wonder why not and point to the monks' caves and grave sites of the Red Paint People as evidence of such crossing.

And on it goes. The big gun called "political correctness" has even been brought into play by the traditional archaeological community, who accuse diffusions theorists of implying that native peoples weren't smart enough to develop the religions and traditions of the Red Paint People. Further, they wonder why the theory persists that people traveled only from Europe to America, rather than the other way around.

Aside from the fact that oceanic currents don't flow that way, some reply that perhaps Native Americans did make the crossing, and that two-way traffic across the Atlantic be just one of the many things, including but not limited to Greek culture, that Europeans lost during the Dark Ages.

Transatlantic evidence seems to have a quirky persistence. A European DNA gene has been found floating around the New England Algonquian nation gene pool. Those monks' caves are still there (attracting, admittedly, mostly tourists with interests in the New Age). And the Red Paint People archaeological sites continue to offer up hints that sophisticated religious traditions involving life after death and associated burial practices entered this country from the East as well as the West, and maybe a very long time ago. Perhaps they even influenced the later "Indian" beliefs, not supplanting or even trying to usurp their religion, but just gently insinuating themselves into the culture, as can happen when people of different traditions meet and share ideas.

Picture a possible scenario:

Two brothers walk out of Africa and come to a parting of the ways on the large isthmus we now call the Holy Land.

One brother heads east and camps for a few thousand years on the shores of Lake Bikal. There he develops a rich shamanic spiritual tradition that he eventually carries across a land bridge, unfolding it upon the American continent in unique local expressions all the way from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, and from California to New England.

The other brother travels west into Europe, eventually reaching the Atlantic Ocean. Not to be thwarted by a mere body of water, he soon learns how to build boats sufficient to carry him across, whereupon he meets his long-lost brother, who eyes him suspiciously from behind a tree. The two are reunited after their long journeys.

One is not "better" or "smarter" than the other. Each has evolved a unique way of viewing the world and a religion that teaches him how to live in it. One had to cross a big ocean. The other had to cross a whole continent. But they are still brothers! That's the point. They may have forgotten it, but they are still brothers—and always will be.

It would be wonderful, of course, to someday discover that the rich religious tradition of the Eastern Algonquians was an early example of what can happen when different traditions augment each other. If we could prove Siberian shamanism, North European paganism, Norse mythology, and early Christian mysticism all played a part in developing the culture that greeted the Pilgrims and helped them through their first Massachusetts winter, it would be a hopeful prototype for peace. Especially since, in our example, our two brothers parted company in the war-torn area of the Middle East.

Sad to say, we will probably never know, because the Puritans destroyed any chance of that ever happening. By the time of the clash of cultures now called King Philip's War (see Calvin, John, and Jacobus Arminius), any hope of mutual respect between Christians and Indians was lost for the next three hundred years. Besides that, the acceptable archaeological evidence needed to make such a claim simply has not been found.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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