C. Prehistoric Periods (Eras of Adaptation)

The archaeological record of North America is classified according to lithic or stone manufactured materials. These lithic materials provide information about the hunter and the hunter's associated culture. Detailed studies of these lithic materials and of the cultural context of the site from where the artefacts were excavated allow archaeologists to construct past lifeway models. How the hunter procured these lithic materials, seasonal hunting movements, and exchange patterns also assist the archaeologist in creating models of First Nations cultures. The lifeways of these hunting cultures are further enhanced by an understanding of the climatic and environmental conditions, such as the diversity of animal and plant life.

Prehistoric Environments

Animated Map of Prehistoric Environments
Copyright © 2000 The Applied History Research Group

Clovis Tradition

The unglaciated areas of Canada during the late Wisconsin epoch were along the Pacific coastline and east of the Rocky Mountains in the Alberta corridor. Stone projectile points, classified as Clovis and dated to 11,000 years ago, have been discovered in these unglaciated areas. The Clovis, or Paleo-Indian, tradition is associated with a nomadic big game hunting culture. Climatic conditions in the coastal areas, which were wet and humid during the spring and summer, supported a grassland environment. Herd animals flourished and small bands of Clovis culture people lived as hunters and gatherers. Their tool kits included bone, stone, and wood objects. These lithic raw materials have been excavated by archaeologists as much as two hundred kilometres from the stone's original source. This shifting of materials infers population movement, exchange relationships, mobility patterns, and strategies that are involved with lithic procurement and transport. Stone cores used for pressure flaked projectile points were either traded or part of a gift exchange network. Tools were used for butchering large mammals and scraping hides. Untrimmed stone blades and flakes were used as knives. Bone and wood were used for the foreshafts and spears. Clovis stone points are identified by concave fluting at the base and bone shapes into the shaft. The spear technology would allow hunting of solitary mammoths, strays from the herd, or driving a mammoth into the swamp. The animal was wounded, then slowly killed with thrusting spears. Archaeologists have determined that the last mastodon and mammoth kills occurred 11,000 years ago. There is no explanation for the abrupt extinction of big game. The Clovis people flourished for five hundred years and then dispersed as quickly as the big game disappeared.

Archaic Tradition

The North American climate stabilised 8,000 years ago to climatic conditions similar to today's. Rapid global warming and receding glaciers created diverse climatic and regional conditions across the continent. During the next 3,000 years, it is estimated that two hundred species became extinct in the Americas. According to the archaeological record of the Archaic period, humans displayed adaptations to foraging activities, which were required for survival in these diverse regions. Subsistence behaviour patterns indicate that a base camp was occupied and seasonal hunting patterns observed. Wild vegetables were gathered during the spring, summers, and fall. Meat and vegetables had to be gathered and dried to store for winter. Archaeologists have also found evidence of smaller animal kills and alternative food sources. Pollen analysis of archaic period sites also provides evidence of foraging activities. In some areas, a gradual shift occurred toward sedentary settlement, which encouraged local cultural variation. The temperate environment encouraged a rapid population growth after 4,000 years ago.

Distinguishing traits associated with the Archaic tradition are the increased exploitation of aquatic life and the shift from long distance lithic exchange to reliance on local materials. The Archaic tradition is defined according to three stages of projectile point styles, as well as the introduction of slate tools and copper. Technology associated with the Archaic period are barbed fish harpoons, chisels, hooks, awls, needles, beads, combs, and dart heads.

Social ranking is evident in the late Archaic society. The placement of artefacts and materials within a burial site indicate social differentiation based upon status. A burial site at L'Anse Amour in southern Labrador dated at 7,500 B.P. contains objects that suggest social ranking and ritual. An adolescent male is buried stomach down under a rock cairn, with a walrus tusk placed in front of his face. The grave goods include notched projectile points, stemmed knives, a bone pendant, bird bone flute, and an antler toggle. Two upright stones with charcoal and fish remains suggest a ritual ceremony was associated with the burial. The burial patterns of the Oxbow people in Saskatchewan also show evidence of social stratification. Adult males are buried with more objects and often interned with dogs, which may indicate a high social value placed upon hunters.

Paleo-Arctic Tradition

A post-glacial warming trend began approximately 8000 B.C.E. (Before Common Era) and this warm period lasted until 2000 B.C.E. when a rapid cooling of global temperatures occurred. The lifeways of Paleo-Arctic peoples required the seasonal predictability of animal migrations and plant growth. Rapid changes in climatic conditions around 2000 B.C.E. had an effect on the adaptation patterns of Paleo-Arctic groups. Hunting sites were often abandoned as bands searched for large fauna in warmer southern tundra regions. The response to weather disturbances was disastrous for certain groups, but others adapted and thrived. New ice hunting technology emerged and dwellings became larger and more permanent, which is an indication that the group had adapted. Artefacts that exhibit local adaptations have been found primarily near coastal areas and are attributed to the Dorset culture.

The archaeological theory that links the Neolithic cultures of Siberia with the Denbigh Flint Complex culture of Northern Alaska is based upon evidence dated to approximately 2000 B.C.E. In the Arctic were found small tool kits, which represent the unique technology developed for the region. The tool kits are associated with the Paleo-Arctic people who migrated east across present-day Northern Canadian territories during a 3,000-year period. Paleo-Arctic cultures are evident in the central and eastern Arctic after 1500 B.C.E. The Paleo-Arctic tradition was replaced by the Early Dorset culture around 500 - 1 B.C.E., which survived in Northern Ungava and Newfoundland until the fifteenth century.

The archaeological record of the Arctic is unique in North America. The land is under ice most of the year and the landscape is subjected to very little wind and rain erosion. It has, therefore, remained unchanged for centuries. Artefacts are well preserved and are often found by archaeologists in the same place where a Paleo-hunter had dropped it. An example is the 10,000-year old archaeological site called Akmak, located on the Onion Portage. Lithic tools were found at the site but evidence of shelter has eroded away. Inuit lifeways are reconstructed from this type of archaeological evidence.

Woodland Culture Tradition

The Woodland Cultural period dates from 1000 B.C.E. to 1000 C.E. (Common Era) and is associated with Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime regions. Archaeologists classify the peoples of the Woodland cultures into five distinct groups: Meadowwood, Point Penninsula, Saugeen, Princess Point and Laurel. The introduction of pottery distinguishes the Woodland culture from the Archaic. The oldest pottery excavated in Canada was manufactured by the Laurentian people of southern Ontario. They created pointed-bottom beakers that were decorated by a cord marking technique that involved impressing tooth implements into wet clay. Woodland technology includes items such as beaver incisor knives, bangles, and chisels. Sedentary agricultural lifeways were practised and the population continued to increase due to a diet of squash, corn, and bean crops.

The ritual of placing cremated remains in burial mounds was developing during the Woodland period. Two burial mounds exist in Canada. One is located at Rice Lake, Ontario, which is serpentine-shaped and sixty metres long. This site has yielded Laurentian artefacts such as a carved bird stone and gorgets (weights attached to spears to assist with accuracy and strength). Triangular projectile points, which were manufactured specifically as a grave good, were also found at the site. The second site is the Augustine mound in New Brunswick, which contains a tubular smoking pipe that exhibits evidence of Hopewellian cultural influence.

Evidence of Woodland cultural influence in Western Canada is found near Cluny, Alberta. An earth lodge community located at Blackfoot Crossing contains Hopewellian-influenced ceramics. Archaeologists speculate that an agricultural people moved north in response to drought conditions. Blackfoot oral tradition attributes this earth lodge to the Crow people of the mid-western plains.

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