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A History of the Native People of Canada
Volume I (10,000 to 1,000 B.C.)

Introduction (Chapter 1)

When Europeans explored the Western Hemisphere in the late 15th to 17th centuries they found all regions, from the Arctic to the southern tip of South America, occupied by other human beings. The societies of these people ranged from that of simple hunting bands to complex priest-emperor ruled city-states and empires with elaborate ceremonial architecture, evolved agriculture based on a wide range of domesticated plants, astronomy, calendric systems, mathematics, and writing. Explanations for the presence of the people of a hemisphere which had unexpectedly intruded itself between Europe and China abounded and in the vast majority of cases were flagrantly Eurocentric. Indeed, rather than Indians and Inuit being the occupants of the Western Hemisphere, the "...major actors seem to be Vikings, Phoenicians, Irishmen, Egyptians, Welshmen, the Lost Tribes of Israel..." among others (McGhee 1989: 164). Fray José de Acosta's astute observation in A.D. 1590 that the Indians descended from hunters who had entered North America from Asia was the exception to the rule. This European biased view of the pre-European human history of the Western Hemisphere is still prevalent. Text books on Canadian history focus on the last 350 years and, in general, have ignored the preceding twelve millennia of Native history. The reason for this situation is that Western Hemisphere Native peoples were not literate, with the exception of parts of Mexico and Central America. Even in these instances, literacy was limited to the ruling classes who were quickly eliminated by their European conquerors along with most of their written documents.

Beringia - Vidéoanthrop Inc.; CMC I-A-40, S95-23503
Beringia 15,000 Years Ago

A family greets the hunters returning to camp. The geographic and environmental setting is based, in part, on evidence from the Bluefish Caves site even though such a site was more likely used by one or two foraging hunters rather than as a camp for an entire family. While the reconstruction portrayed is speculative, remains of extinct Late Pleistocene animals, such as horse and mammoth, were found at the site. Given the rigorous climate at the time, it is reasonable to assume that tailored skin clothing was essential for survival as well as a wide range of other cold climate cultural adaptations. It is further inferred that it was just such small groups of highly mobile big game hunters who gradually spread out of Asia into Beringia and eventually pioneered the human settlement of the Western Hemisphere.

(Painting produced by Vidéoanthrop Inc., Montréal, under contract with the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The painting was done by M. François Girard using sketches and technical information compiled by M. Marc Laberge and the author.)

Fortunately for the history of the preliterate societies representing the majority of the history of Homo sapiens, the essential difference between humans and other animals is that humans possess culture which permits them to manipulate their environments for their own well-being. This manipulation involves tool making, dwelling construction, the manufacture of clothing, and the endless array of 'artifacts' which have permitted a semi-tropical species to occupy every environmental zone on the planet. Humans are also universally concerned with their origins and their ultimate place in the cosmos and, thus, in addition to the secular artifacts and features there are structures and objects which relate to cosmology, such as special cemeteries, temple mounds, various stone cairn structures, and religious art and artifacts. Many of these cultural manifestations survive the passage of time and through the methods of the discipline of archaeology can be used to reconstruct long vanished cultures.

Before proceeding, a review of the archaeological evidence prior to 12,000 years ago is in order. The evidence is limited, equivocal and, therefore, controversial (Dillehay and Meltzer 1991; Dincauze 1984; Meltzer 1989; 1993; Morlan 1988; 1991). The nature of the pre-15,000 B.P. evidence from the Western Hemisphere stands in curious contrast to the relatively clear evidence of early human settlement of Australia and the initial occupation of northeastern Asia (Jelinek 1992). Relative to pre-20,000 B.P. evidence, either in eastern Beringia or in the Western Hemisphere proper, there is also the problem that the earliest acceptable evidence of people in northeastern Asia is 25,000 B.P. at the earliest and pertains to cultures with an Upper Palaeolithic technology. It is a fundamental premise that people out of Asia colonized the Western Hemisphere. This premise is founded upon both biological and anthropological evidence. Homo sapiens does not appear to have adapted to the rigorous environmental conditions of northeastern Asia until around 40,000 years ago (Grayson 1988: 113; Muller-Beck 1982). The earliest generally accepted archaeological evidence from Western Beringia (Eastern Siberia) pertains to the Diuktai culture, which is dated to 18,000 B.P. (Aikens 1990; Dikov 1978; Morlan 1987; Yi and Clark 1985). The Diuktai culture assemblage is usually regarded as being ancestral to Northwestern Palaeo-Arctic culture dated to 10,500 B.P. in Alaska although a Palaeo-Indian culture ancestry has also been claimed (Mochanov 1969). It should be cautioned, however, that considerable regional and temporal variation exists within "...a cultural horizon with wedge-shaped microcores and bifacial points extended from the Yenisei to Hokkaido and from the Huanghe Valley to the Northwest Territories of North America in terminal Pleistocene times" (Pei 1985: 14). There are a number of problems with what would otherwise appear to be a neat lineal progression of people and their cultures from Western Beringia to Eastern Beringia and thence to the Western Hemisphere. First, the Northwestern Palaeo-Arctic culture in Alaska has been recovered stratigraphically above an earlier assemblage apparently lacking microblade technology and dating to approximately 12,000 B.P. (Powers and Hoffecker 1989). Second, the evidence from the Bluefish Caves site in the northern Yukon raises the possibility of a much earlier appearance in Beringia of the microblade-burin technology typical of the Northwestern Palaeo-Arctic culture (Morlan and Cinq-Mars 1989). Third, the 12 dates on what appear to be human altered proboscidean (mammoth and/or mastodon) bones from the Old Crow River in the Yukon, range from 28,750 to 39,500 B.P. with an average of 33,382 B.P. (Morlan et al. 1990: Table 3). We are, therefore, faced with the paradox of having evidence of people in Eastern Beringia as early as the earliest evidence from northeastern Asia and a microlithic industry possibly dating as early as the earliest evidence from Eastern Siberia. Certainly there are such gaps in the archaeological records of both eastern Asia and adjacent North America that these paradoxes should not be surprising.

As is the case with the archaeological evidence from Beringia, there is controversy concerning the nature of the plant and animal communities. One view is that a steppe-tundra, capable of supporting a large, diverse mammal assemblage, existed (Guthrie 1982); while the contrary view interprets the evidence between 30,000 and 14,000 B.P. to indicate a relatively impoverished, patchy herb tundra (J. Ritchie 1984; Ritchie and Cwynar 1982). Unlike earlier, more favourable environments, this period was probably characterized by polar desert conditions with dry, sunny summers, dry, windy winters, and limited snow cover (Schweger et al. 1982). The incomplete plant cover would have consisted of a low vegetation nearly devoid of trees. These patchy plant communities supported a depleted version of the preceding period, namely mammoth, bison, horse, caribou, mountain sheep, saiga antelope, and musk-ox. Between 14,000 and 13,000 B.P. sudden climatic change resulted in a rapid elevation of sea levels and an increase in birch reflecting a wetter and warmer climate which persisted for 5,000 years. It was during this period that both the mammoth and the horse disappeared.

While a number of archaeologists would argue for a much earlier human presence in the more southerly latitudes of the Western Hemisphere (Bonnichsen and Young 1980; Bryan 1969; 1978), it currently appears that the immediate ancestors of the Palaeo-Indian people represent the initial human migration to the south from the deteriorating environment in Beringia. Two obvious questions are when and how? With reference to the 'when', most archaeologists believe that the distinctive weapon tip of Palaeo-Indian culture was invented south of the ice masses and only subsequently penetrated north as far as Alaska. As Palaeo-Indian culture has been dated to approximately 12,000 years ago, it logically follows that their pre-fluted point ancestors must have existed for some time south of the ice masses in order for the point style to be invented and to diffuse north as environmental conditions ameliorated. Evidence of pre-fluted point sites south of the glaciers, excluding equivocal claims (Lynch 1990; Morlan 1988), is quite limited. If, however, as is speculated here, a small number of people managed to work their way to the south shortly before 15,000 B.P. they could have formed the nucleus of Palaeo-Indian culture and been the innovators of the distinctive point style. Given the massive alterations to Late Pleistocene landforms, detecting the archaeological evidence of small, mobile groups of hunters across a dramatically altered landscape can be understandably difficult. An alternative hypothesis proposes that the fluted point was developed in Eastern Beringia, from where it was carried through the corridor between the Continental Ice Sheet and the Cordilleran Ice of the Rocky Mountains to be widely adopted by already resident populations (Morlan and Cinq-Mars 1982: 380-381). There is currently no evidence of early fluted projectile points in Eastern Beringia except from the controversial Putu site (Alexander 1987) which has probably been too readily dismissed.

In addition to the issue of when the first people penetrated the Western Hemisphere there is also the question of how. Given the glacial conditions and environments of the Late Pleistocene period there are only two plausible routes: through an ice-free corridor along the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountains, or by water transport following a chain of refugia along the west coast. With reference to both routes northern hunters, with their intimate knowledge of animal behaviour including bird and other animal migratory habits, would have known land existed to the south although not necessarily how far.

The ice-free corridor route is the older of the two hypotheses and is still generally the most favoured. Despite intensive and focused research (Ives et al. 1989), however, this route has still not been demonstrated to be that followed by the earliest hunting bands into the heart of the continent. The earliest archaeological evidence in the corridor dates to 10,500 B.P. and more likely represents a late northward thrust long after the initial occupation of the Western Hemisphere. In the portion of the corridor from the Athabasca River Valley to Montana a cold, dry tundra prevailed between 24,000 and 11,400 B.P. with birch and poplar/aspen appearing at the end of the period (Schweger 1989: 498). As early as 14,000 B.P. environmental conditions in the corridor had ameliorated somewhat and would have been more favourable for migrants than the preceding 6,000 years (Ives et al. 1989). There is also evidence that the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets did not coalesce until 15,000 B.P., if then, suggesting the existence of a corridor into the interior of the continent from the north between 45,000 and at least 15,000 B.P. (Bobrowsky and Rutter 1990). The main point to make relative to the corridor is that throughout much of the period it was believed to be open it constituted 2,000 km of hostile, barren country. A secondary consideration, but one of vital importance to archaeology, is the probability that any human movement through the corridor was likely to have been quite rapid, leaving little archaeological trace. On the other hand, if Late Pleistocene caribou herd behaviour was similar to that of today then the elevated, dry, harsh climate of the corridor would have been ideal as seasonal calving grounds and could have led to both the northern and southern portions of the corridor attracting large herds during the warmer months of the year. Such a hypothesized rich seasonal animal resource could have resulted in substantial sites. Geological evidence suggests that the high terraces of the corridor were likely uninhabitable in contrast to the alluvial fans (Levson 1990). But if the caribou calving grounds hypothesis has any validity it will be necessary to reconstruct Late Pleistocene land forms in the corridor in order to predict where early archaeological sites would most likely be encountered.

A west coast migration route used by sea-faring people who exploited coastal refugia was first suggested by Knut R. Fladmark (1979) and, while feasible between 15,000 and 10,500 B.P. (Luternauer et al. 1989), like the corridor hypothesis, lacks concrete evidence. Indirectly supporting the hypothesis is the present linguistic diversity of the West Coast which contrasts with the much simpler linguistic situation to east of the Continental Divide. This linguistic diversity has been explained as a product of early peoples occupying the refugia (Rogers et al. 1990) although there are a number of major theoretical problems with the proposition. A fundamental assumption of the coastal route hypothesis is that the migrating people were proficient maritimers in possession of sophisticated watercraft. While evidence of watercraft rarely survive in the archaeological record, the foregoing assumption is, in all probability, correct even if the coastal hypothesis is not. In northern latitudes, in particular, the rich maritime animal resources must have been a strong attraction for any hunting peoples. Certainly it is inconceivable that Palaeo-Indian culture people could have functioned in the rapidly changing Late Pleistocene environments without some form of watercraft and, indeed, settlement pattern evidence indicates islands were often exploited (Storck 1979). The single greatest weakness with the coastal hypothesis is that it is difficult to test due to post-glacial submergence of the coastal refugia. Similarly, any east coast Late Pleistocene archaeological evidence is 'out to sea' (Porter 1988: Figure 5). In regions such as the Vancouver area, where sea levels between 10,000 and 11,000 B.P. approximated today's levels, there is no evidence of Palaeo-Indian culture (Roberts 1984: 15). There is also the problem of how maritime adapted people could get south of the frozen Alaska Peninsula much less survive on the hostile refugia (Reanier 1990). The limited evidence for Palaeo-Indian culture in the Pacific Northwest and its lateness (Meltzer and Dunnell 1987) suggests that the ancestors of these people did not arrive in the region as accomplished maritimers. The fact that the earliest recognized colonists survived in the rapidly changing environments of the glacial-interglacial transition is proof enough that they were superb generalists and opportunists capable of rapid adaptive cultural adjustments. As such, these earliest people could have possessed both maritime and interior adaptive strategies and, thus, been able to accommodate either or both interior and coastal migration routes. At this point, however, neither of the two routes into the Western Hemisphere has been demonstrated. What can be demonstrated is that around 12,000 years ago people were widespread in the interior of the continent. It must be cautioned that the 'burst' of Palaeo-Indian culture upon the scene 12,000 years ago may be more apparent than real. The archaeological visibility of Palaeo-Indian culture is very much keyed to the distinctive lanceheads which, in various forms, were used for approximately 1,000 years. Indeed, the majority of Palaeo-Indian sites have been dated by these projectile point 'index fossils' rather than by datable samples recovered from good archaeological contexts. Theoretically earlier sites lacking such a convenient 'index fossil' cannot be typologically dated and thus cannot be given a cultural assignment. The major Palaeo-Indian sites tend to be kill sites in the west, where large animals were killed and butchered, or seasonal residential sites in the east, often associated with stone quarries and lacking bone preservation. In addition to the limitations in the archaeological record there are the considerable difficulties in attempting to comprehend the unique event of the human occupation of an entire hemisphere with its great diversity of physiography and environments. The occupation and exploration of the Western Hemisphere by Palaeo-Indian culture and its derivatives must be accorded respect as one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of our species.

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