Early Plains Culture (Précis, Chapter 9)
Early Plains culture pertains to a segment
of time extending from 8,000 B.P. to 4,000 B.C. The reader will recall
that the calibration tables used in this work
(Klein et al. 1982), which
permit the expression of radiocarbon years in calendar years, only
extend as far back as 7,240 B.P. and, thus, the preceding B.P. to B.C.
age range. In terms of the cultural chronologies of the Northern Plains
this period has been referred to either as a cultural hiatus or any of
the following: Middle Prehistoric (Early II); Plains Archaic (Early);
Middle Plains Indian; and Middle Prehistoric (Early)
(Walker 1992: Figure 18).
Around 8,000 B.P. the exquisitely flaked terminal Plano culture
lanceolate and stemmed projectile points were replaced with notched and,
less frequently, lanceolate and stemmed projectile points lacking the
distinctive flaking technique. The dramatic change in projectile point
styles occurred across the Plains of North America and extended into the
adjacent Foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Equivalent changes in
settlement patterns, subsistence, and the remainder of the technology,
except the stone knapping procedures, are not evident. This suggests
that the change in projectile point styles was a product of diffusion
which also affected many aspects of the older stone working techniques.
Increasingly the appearance of notched points is being interpreted as
evidence of the diffusion of the spearthrower weapon system
(Buchner 1980: 20;
Vickers 1986: 62) rather than
as evidence of a migration of people onto the Plains
(Gryba 1976: 92;
Husted 1969: 88). The
chronology of radiocarbon dates from sites producing early notched
points suggests the spearthrower was invented somewhere in what is now
the southeastern United States around 10,000 B.P. If, as current
evidence would suggest, these notched points represent the introduction
of the spearthrower into the Plains and adjacent regions then Early
Plains culture is simply the continuation of the earlier Plano culture
with the addition of a new but important element of technology. As it
is necessary for archaeologists to organize time and space in
relationship to cultural events, the appearance of the notched projectile
point provides an appropriate horizon style. It is almost certain that
the replacement of the thrusting spear by the spearthrower was a longer
and more complex process than is currently envisioned.
There is considerable difficulty in recognizing the antiquity of many
of the early notched projectile point forms when they are removed
from a datable context. Thus, their use as 'index fossils' for
typological cross-dating is fraught with risks, especially given the
evidence of considerable projectile point form variability within
Schroedl and Walker 1978).
Matters have not been particularly helped by a host of regional type
names (Mummy Cave, Bitterroot, Mount Albion Corner-Notched, Gowen
Side-Notched, Salmon River Side-Notched, Hawken Side-Notched, Blackwater
Side-Notched, etc.) whose temporal and spatial significance are still
(Vickers 1986: 59) and whose
cavalier application to culture history reconstructions has done
more to confuse than clarify. While there has been a recent effort
to establish objective criteria for classifying such projectile
(Walker 1992: 132-142) it
remains to be seen how a mathematically-derived discriminant function
classification system will be accepted by Plains archaeologists.
Regardless of these difficulties, it is apparent that Early Plains
culture established the cultural base for the Middle Plains culture
of Period III.
A significant episode on the Plains at this time was a prolonged
period of intermittent dry, warm weather called the Altithermal or
Hypsithermal. The period of significant drought occurred between
9,000 and 6,000 B.P.
(Anderson et al. 1989: 528;
Schweger et al. 1981: 581).
It is critical to note, however, that the climatic severity of warm
temperatures and dryness was definitely regional in character
(Anderson et al. 1989).
In fact, there is so much palaeoenvironmental evidence of regional
variability that the Altithermal concept simply cannot be used as a
chronological marker. There has been sufficient misuse of the concept
as a widespread climatic phenomenon that it has been recommended that
the term be abandoned
(Schweger 1987: 374-375).
There is also an increased scepticism regarding any one to one
relationship between climatic episodes and human responses. The
most accepted current view is that the shortgrass Plains was
sporadically occupied throughout the period of the Altithermal. It
is probable that small and widely distributed populations were
involved and that during times of severe drought in certain regions
people simply shifted into marginal areas following the game. Such
occupations would have been centred in the major river valleys.
While there is still considerable controversy regarding both the
dating and the severity of this climatic event
Vickers 1986) it must be
acknowledged that its impact upon people can only be eventually
determined through archaeological and not palaeoenvironmental
(Vickers 1986: 58).
The impact of the Altithermal on the hunting bands of the Plains,
of course, related to its effect upon browse and water availability
and, thus, the movements and concentrations of the bison herds
(Buchner 1980). A drier and
warmer climate would have favoured grasslands over forests and, thus,
the grasslands and their dependent bison herds would have expanded
northward and particularly towards the northeast. Even as the
grasslands expanded at the expense of the forests, however, the
density of browse and its quality would have been reduced by drought.
Drought conditions would have tended to force the herds into the major
river valleys and marginal parklands and forested regions where
sufficient water and browse were available. Forested oasis in the
grasslands, such as the Cypress Hills which straddle southern Alberta
and Saskatchewan, would also have provided refuge for the herds as
well as their human predators. Added to the climatically induced
environmental changes and their effect upon the herds and, thus, human
settlement patterns and the difficulty of recognizing Early Plains
culture technology from surface sites, were erosional and depositional
cycles which either deeply buried or destroyed sites
(Vickers 1986: 49-51;
Wilson 1983). This seriously
reduced archaeological visibility has severely limited archaeological
reconstruction of Early Plains culture lifeways
An important natural event, occurring at 6,600 B.P. (5,805 to 5,250
B.C.), was a volcanic explosion in Oregon which covered much of
southern British Columbia, southern Alberta, southwestern Saskatchewan,
and the adjacent states with a geologically recognizable and datable
volcanic ash fall
(Bobrowsky et al. 1990).
Known as the Mazama ash fall or tephra, the deposit acts as an
important geological and archaeological horizon time marker in the
respect that remains either below or above the ash lense must date
earlier or later than the ash.