The Mysterious “Red Paint People” of Prehistoric Northeastern North America

Last updated on March 22nd, 2023 at 08:28 pm

Until the early 19th Century, the mysterious race known as the “Red Paint People” existed only in the realm of mythology; phantasmal beings said to have roamed the forests of New England and Atlantic Canada thousands of years in the past. Folkloric fodder. Their one prominent characteristic was their bright red skin.

The myth began to give way to historical fact in the late 19th Century when several grave sites in Maine long attributed to this mysterious culture drew the attention of American anthropologist Charles Willoughby.

 Willoughby subsequently visited the so-called “Red Paint People” site and constructed a scale model he then exhibited at the Chicago Colombian Exposition of 1893. His display drew the attention of renowned archaeologist Warren Moorehead, an expert in indigenous cultures of that region, who decided to excavate the ancient burials.

Sifting through the remains of 170 graves, Moorehead unearthed hundreds of beautifully-crafted stone implements, including fire-making stones, woodworking tools, pear-shaped fishing plummets, chipped knives, spear points, polished slate arrow points, and a wide variety of stone blades. These items were intermixed with chunks of ochre (red oxide), enough to fill a bushel basket. 

Surprisingly, these graves contained no personal items typically associated with ritualized burial. But what interested Moorehead most was the lack of pottery, metal tools, and human remains. 

Not a single clay pot, iron blade, or bone fragment was present. If his supposition was true, these graves were older than any ever opened in North America. 

Between 1912 and the 1920s, Moorehead published his findings in many esteemed American archaeological journals, as well as his theory that the “Red Paint People” were a much older culture than any known indigenous group of the Northeast. 

He was convinced that they were a separate, previously unknown prehistoric culture that preceded the Algonquian tribes, then dominating the woodlands of northeastern North America. 

As hoped, his controversial theory drew the attention of the scientific community at large. So, naturally, they wanted to know who the “Red Paint People” were. 

Red Ochre Tool. Source:

Who Were the “Red Paint People”?

Carbon dating of the extricated artifacts showed that the “Red Paint People” were a pre-Columbian indigenous culture occupying a large swath of territory extending from New England to Labrador, fishing and hunting along the coasts and rivers between 7000 to 9000 years ago.

Initially thought to be a single migratory group that passed through the Northeast region, Dr. David Sanger of the University of Maine concluded that they were not a single discrete race but an alliance of separate groups who inhabited the same general area at the same time and shared the same funerary practices—specifically, the ritual use of red ochre (and likely, other funerary practices such as painting their bodies red). 

The evidence further showed that the “Red Paint People” hit their peak of cultural development between 5000 and 3000 years ago and came to equal their European counterparts in innovative stone and bone tool-making techniques, as well as the development of sophisticated navigational skills thousands of years before the Vikings began their historic voyages west. 

Many of their coastal habitation sites show evidence of year-round occupation, their trash middens reflecting a diet of sea fish, anadromous fish (sea fish that swim upriver to breed), shellfish, meat, berries, acorns, nuts, roots, and swordfish—most likely spear-hunted from a boat. 

Scholars believe it probable that seasonal or yearly events were held during which interior groups were invited to participate in fishing or hunting, perhaps analogous to modern-day powwows or spiritual gatherings.

Cultural and Spiritual Influence

With a trading range known to have extended from the New York side of Lake Champlain to Labrador/Newfoundland, the “Red Paint People’s” cultural influence is thought to have encompassed most of this geographic area, their mortuary traditions involving the use of red ochre influencing cultures even beyond the region. 

With no written language to reference, scholars can only speculate as to why these ancient mariners routinely covered their dead and grave goods with red ochre, making their burial traditions more elaborate than any subsequent area culture. 

However, the use of ochre in funerary practice is known to many cultures of the world, including the indigenous of Australia, South Africa, Europe, and Asia. 

In these and other settings, red or yellow ochre is recognized as an honorific in burial sites and used for spiritual purification and personal protection. 

It’s easy to imagine how this relationship with the spirit world could have evolved into all-consuming piety visibly displayed on their bodies. 

Origin Theories

The Discovery of definitive proof of a prehistoric group predating the oldest known indigenous culture of the Northeast by thousands of years has sparked the imaginations of countless scholars and historians from a dozen disciplines. 

But invariably, the only way to ascertain their place in the larger historical picture is to determine their origin, which poses more questions than provides answers.

Could the “Red Paint People” have been the descendants of an even earlier seafaring people that once traded along the North Atlantic coast and Arctic Circle–island-hopping, as it were, in large skin boats along the chain of islands known to have existed before the Atlantic submerged them some 8500 years ago? 

Or did they originate even farther to the north . . . Asia, for example? 

Or perhaps they migrated across the barren wasteland of the Arctic Circle from what is now Russia? 

Those questions will continue to go unanswered without new evidence to help construct their history. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for logical deduction. 

American anthropologist Frank Speck proposes what is perhaps the most well-received perspective regarding the origin of the “Red Paint People,” as well as their model of societal organization. 

Speck suggests that rather than the traditional “tribe” model prevalent in historic times, the “band” model may be more applicable to this enigmatic group. 

Reasoning that while some migrating groups of the world have managed to function successfully as a tribe (kinship-structured large groups that share a single language, heritage and culture, often connected through bloodlines), for a group dated to 9000+ years in the past, the “band” model (groups of perhaps fifty, self-sufficient members of various languages, history and culture) allows for non-bloodline groups to band together over shared beliefs, ritual practices, and common goals. 

This would characterize the progression of people inhabiting northeastern North America, not as a succession of tribal displacement but fluid cooperation of peoples of different origins allying for a common goal.

The Historical and Cultural Significance of the “Red Paint People”

Although comparatively little is known about these prehistoric peoples, what is known makes their historical and cultural impact on North America immeasurable. They may have been the most powerful impetus of cultural development in prehistoric North America—if not the Western Hemisphere. 

The acquisition of the skills and knowledge needed to build sailing vessels capable of navigating the Atlantic Ocean thousands of years before cultures to the east places them among the world’s first known ocean voyagers; and possibly the first of the Western Hemisphere. 

Along with water-craft construction and navigational reckoning, the “Red Paint People” developed fishing tools and techniques, making hunting large fish on the open water possible. 

These technological accomplishments not only contributed vastly to humankind’s relationship with the environment but it also broadened their collective consciousness regarding the boundaries of what is possible.

Since the 1930s, the general consensus among the archaeological community is that the first humans to occupy North and South America were a group called the Clovis Culture; a group believed to have migrated into North America by crossing the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia to Alaska at the end of the Ice Age, about 11,700 years ago. 

They are thought by many to be the ancestors of most of the indigenous people of the Americas today. 

However, while there is no evidence to dispute this belief, it’s difficult to ignore the factual evidence regarding the “Red Paint People,” which suggests that the arrival and settlement of this culture in North America could well have coincided with that of the Clovis. The Clovis occupying sites in the North American Southwest, the “Red Paint People” occupying sites in the Northeast. 

A growing sector of Anthropologists is asking if the “Red Paint People” could have arrived earlier than the archaeological record indicates. 

Did their arrival in Atlantic Canada also coincide with the recession of the ice sheet? If so, much of what we believe is true about the cultural development of North America would need to be reimagined. Most significantly, the progenitors of the indigenous tribes.  

Among Native American tribes (historically and in modern times), the sacred nature of body painting and ritual adornment cannot be overemphasized. 

The first European settlers’ journal entries detail the ornate and sometimes frightening face and body painting common to the Natives they encountered. 

But it wasn’t until 1937 that archaeologists discovered that this practice reaches back at least 7000 years to a site deemed the Red Ochre Mortuary Complex, belonging to a group aptly named the “Red Ochre Culture,” that lived throughout what is now Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan and known to adorn both their dead and the living with red ochre. 

In that the “Red Paint People” were the only known group present in that area at that time and very likely the first culture in North America to use red ochre ritually, their ignition of spirituality among the indigenous population seems apparent. 

Did the “Red Paint People” establish the concept of spirituality and its expression through body painting in North America? No other scenario seems more likely. 


American Anthropologist, “The ‘Red Paint People’ of Maine,”

Maine History, “Red Paint People ‘and Other Myths of Maine Archaeology,’”

American Anthropologist, “The Red-Paint People,”

American Anthropologist, “The Red Paint People of Maine,”

Archaeology (Archive Abstract), “Letter from Newfoundland: Homing in on the ‘Red Paint People,’”

Aboriginal Burial Ceremonies: An Ancient Practice: Aboriginal Burial Ceremonies – SevenPonds BlogSevenPonds Blog 

American Philosophical Society, “Cultural Problems in Northeastern North America,”

Text: The Materiality of Color.

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