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

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 single components (Gryba 1980; 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 unclear (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 points (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 (Buchner 1980; Vickers 1986) it must be acknowledged that its impact upon people can only be eventually determined through archaeological and not palaeoenvironmental evidence (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 (Dyck 1983).

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.

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