Return to Menu
A History of the Native People of Canada
Volume II (1,000 B.C. to A.D. 500)

Late Plateau Culture (Précis, Chapter 27)

The irregular topography of the Canadian Plateau of British Columbia and its altitudinal effect upon seasonal availability of plants and animals placed both constraints on, and provided opportunities for, hunters and gatherers. A plateau and mountain region south of 55° north latitude, the Canadian Plateau is situated between the Coast Mountains and the Rocky Mountains and north of the Canadian and American border (Holland 1964). Within its boundaries, the Fraser River and its tributaries represent the major drainage system followed by the Columbia River and then the Skeena River system on the northern boundary. A striking topographic feature is the Rocky Mountain Trench, which extends from the British Columbia border with Montana northwest to the Liard River in the Northwest Territories. The southerly 725 km of the Trench consists of a continuous valley, ranging from 3 to 16 km in width, within which the headwaters of the Columbia River system is situated only a short distance from the headwaters of the Fraser River. Both river systems eventually turn sharply to the southwest, with the Columbia River emptying into the Pacific Ocean between the states of Washington and Oregon while the Fraser River joins the Pacific Ocean at Vancouver. For the most part, the Canadian Plateau is covered by a cool, temperate Columbia-Montane Forest vegetation province characterized by spruce, aspen, lodgepole pine, cedar, hemlock, and Douglas fir. Precipitation ranges from 30 to 70 cm. with an annual snowfall between 75 to 500 cm. January and July mean temperatures range from -20 to -3 degrees C and 10 to 21 degrees C, respectively (McAndrews and Manville 1987). Anadromous fish, like salmon, who spawn and spend their juvenile stage in freshwater and most of their adult life in the sea, once ascended to the headwaters of the Columbia River in British Columbia as far as the Windermere and Columbia lakes, just 60 km west of the Alberta border. However, salmon were blocked by a falls from entering most of the Kootenay River system immediately west of Kootenay Lake. In this extreme southeastern portion of the Canadian Plateau bison were available and, while mule deer, white-tailed deer, caribou, wapiti, mountain goat, mountain sheep, black bear, and other game species were present their distributions and densities were locally quite variable (Banfield 1974).

Maul or Pestle - Drawing: David Laverie
Late Plateau Culture Zoomorphic Maul or Pestle

This polished stone implement from the Lehman site south of Lillooet could have been used as a hammer in wood working with a stone adze or wooden wedge and/or possibly for the grinding of dried plants and meats. The animal portrayed is probably a stylistic frog or toad, an animal that appears to have had special symbolic significance along with the rattlesnake in Late Plateau culture three-dimensional art.

(Reproduced, with permission, from Dr. David Sanger, Department of Anthropology, University of Maine at Orono, 1970: Figure 32h. Drawing by Mr. David W. Laverie.)

Given the physiographic and ecological complexity and the range of opportunities and limitations for hunters and gatherers it is not surprising that cultural regionalism characterizes the area. This regionalism, however, is not sufficient to negate the application of a Late Plateau culture construct to the entire region, with the possible exception of the Kootenay area. Recognizing the environmentally diverse nature of the Canadian Plateau and its affect upon cultural regionalism has led to the opinion that "A mosaic of related variant cultures separated by mountain ranges or drainage divides maybe the only "typical" long-standing regional pattern" (Fladmark 1982: 125). Regions such as the Chilcotin, the Mid-Fraser, Thompson River, South Thompson River-Western Shuswap Lakes, Nicola, the Northern Okanagan, the Arrow Lakes (Ibid: 21) and, in particular, the Kootenay, do possess local cultural characteristics which reflect regional adaptations to local conditions. Despite the foregoing, the Canadian Plateau is regarded as sharing in a broadly similar cultural pattern. This pattern, locally referred to as the Plateau Pithouse tradition, is best known from the Middle Fraser-Thompson River region. The tradition has been divided into three cultural horizons that begin in Period III, span Period IV, and end with the historically documented Salishan-speaking people of Period V. A cultural horizon is considered to be "...essentially an integrative construct which recognizes a general level of inter-regional cultural similarity while at the same time acknowledging that certain regional differences exist" (Richards and Rousseau 1987: 41). The Kootenay area is excluded from the Plateau Pithouse tradition by Richards and Rousseau but this exclusion may be premature or, at the least, requires some qualification.

Late Plateau culture developed directly out of the preceding Middle Plateau culture. Once again, a possible exception to this generalization is the Kootenay region of southeastern British Columbia where limited detailed published evidence and lack of archaeological investigation of the two known pit house villages make it difficult to determine to what degree the region participated in Late Plateau culture, Late Plains culture, both cultures, or was distinct onto itself. On the basis of present evidence, it is believed that the region participated to a greater extent in Late Plateau culture than Late Plains culture to the east. Many of the ethnographically recorded Plains traits of the Upper Kootenay were likely recent introductions related to the use of the horse to seasonally exploit bison on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains (Blake 1981). It is emphasized, however, that pit houses are a very rare phenomena in the region. With the exception of the Kootenay, there is agreement that the descendants of Late Plateau culture were the historic Salish-speaking bands of the Canadian Plateau. The Eyak-Athapaskan-speaking Chilcotin and Carrier to the north represent relatively recent immigrants into the territory south of 55° north latitude; the result of a major southward population movement that was probably related to the White River volcanic eruption and ash fall in the Yukon (Wright 1995: Black and White Plate IX, 145) which occurred around A.D. 500 (Moodie et al. 1990).

Late Plateau culture may be characterized as follows: a settlement pattern consisting of sedentary winter pit house villages in river valleys and short-term, warm weather camps that exploited a wide range of resources throughout most of the rest of the year; storage of winter food supplies in pits; the use of pit baking ovens; heavy use of heated stones for baking and boiling; a reliance upon salmon as a winter food but only as an integral element of a system where stored roots and berries and fresh and smoked deer meat were also of importance; a weakly developed bone technology; the dominance of chipped stone over ground stone implements; the presence of some zoomorphic carving; and evidence of increasing trade contacts with coastal people. The Kootenay region only partially fits this pattern and its affiliation with Late Plateau culture is currently based upon shared elements of technology.

Pit house dwellings, which first appeared in the Middle Plateau culture of Period III, were semi-subterranean structures, generally circular in outline with an inferred entrance via log ladder through the top of the conical or pyramidal roof. Depth of the house pit, interior features, and associated external features can be quite variable. Most pit house villages date to around 1,000 B.C. at the transition from Period III to Period IV. The increasing number and size of these villages is significant and may be attributed to an increase in sedentary life with its requirement of substantial amounts of stored winter foods such as dried salmon, smoked deer meat, dried roots, fungi, and berries. While it has been proposed that, between 4,000 B.C. and A.D. 1, stored foods supplemented big game hunting but that from A.D. 1 on the roles were reversed with hunting supplementing the stored fish and plant materials, it now appears that the important role of stored winter foods was well in place by Period IV and likely long before. In fact, the pit house villages may not be as much a result of increasing sophistication in food preservation methods as the coalescence of formerly dispersed winter populations. Reasons for winter population coalescence are more likely to be based upon the complex interplay of social, economic, and technological factors rather than any single factor like improvements in food storage.

The Plateau Pithouse tradition is characterized as a semi-sedentary settlement pattern involving winter pit house villages located in river valleys with a focus on salmon exploitation and winter food storage. Three sequential horizons make up this tradition and are as follows: Shuswap horizon from 2,500 to 500 B.C.; Plateau horizon from 500 B.C. to A.D. 800; and Kamloops horizon from A.D. 800 to European Contact (Richards and Rousseau 1987). Note that the foregoing calendrical age ranges are based upon a conversion of radiocarbon year ranges of 4,000 to 2,400 B.P., 2,400 to 1,200 B.P., and 1,200 to European contact, respectively, following Klien et al. (1982).

Technological trends during Period IV include the replacement of projectile point styles reminiscent of the McKean/Duncan/Hanna sequence of the Plains by a variety of corner-notched, basally notched, and stemmed forms. Despite earlier claims (Donahue 1975: 39), the bow and arrow weapon system does not appear in the Canadian Plateau until around the end of Period IV (Fladmark 1986: 131; Richards and Rousseau 1987; Stryd 1973). Some regionalism is apparent with projectile point styles in the Okanagan and Arrow Lakes areas reflecting proximity to the Columbia Plateau. Though it has been suggested that both the Okanagan and Arrow Lakes regions participated in the cultural pattern of the Columbia Plateau (Turnbull 1977; Wilson 1980), there is now evidence to support their inclusion in the Plateau Pithouse tradition (Richards and Rousseau 1987). Cultural continuity within the tradition is apparent and even the criterion for the establishment of three sequential horizons is premised upon relatively limited settlement pattern and technological changes or has been related to environmental change. For example, climatic change has been used to account for the transition of the Shuswap horizon into the Plateau horizon (Richards and Rousseau 1987: 52) despite the rather minor nature of these changes. Increasing adaptive efficiency, associated with population growth and consolidation, is likely the single most important factor involved in change within Plateau culture.

By the beginning of Period IV or 1,000 B.C. "...the Plateau Pithouse tradition adaptive cultural pattern had been established throughout the Canadian Plateau" (Richards and Rousseau 1987: 23) as well as the Columbia Plateau (Ames and Marshall 1980: 35), although the process had begun in both regions prior to 2,000 B.C. This settlement pattern phenomenon of winter villages situated in river valleys in both the Canadian and Columbia plateaus has been interpreted as a product of increasing sedentism, cultural complexity, and intensification of the importance of stored foods for winter consumption (Ames and Marshall 1980). The earliest year-round occupied pit house villages were located in strategic, resource-rich, centres. Population increase through time increasingly required more efficient specialized exploitation of certain resources (Lohse and Sammons-Lohse 1986). Some have argued that salmon fishing techniques and preservation methods were critical to the process while others have emphasized the importance of roots and other storable vegetable foods. There is some agreement, however, that populations increased during Period IV (Fladmark 1986). To what extent natural biological increase was responsible for this impression of population growth, as opposed to formerly more dispersed populations coalescing into the winter villages, is not possible to determine at this time.

Very little is known of Late Plateau culture cosmology. Flexed burials in the floors of pit houses have been reported. Fragments of human bone in hearths outside of dwellings suggest that cremation was also practised. In a cemetery near Kamloops, the partially cremated remains of four children were richly provided with ground nephrite adzes, antler digging stick handles, netsinkers, and dentalium marine shell beads (Smith 1900: 436). The majority of the carved and polished stone bowl seated human figures that occur on both the southern coast and the Canadian Plateau are estimated to date between 2,500 and 1,500 years ago. With few exceptions, these elaborate works of art have been discovered accidentally in locales generally removed from villages suggesting that they "...may have been used in secret rituals" (Fladmark 1986: 92). It has further been speculated that the bowl holding figures were used " ritual and divining vessels by shamans and ritualists" (Duff 1975: 52) and, thus, were "...associated with this veneration of life, and are in that sense sacred art" (Ibid: 52-53).

Little can be said concerning human biology due to both the scarcity of skeletal remains and published physical anthropological studies from the Canadian Plateau for Period IV. A burial from the Lillooet area involved a man who had survived several club blows to the side of the head and a stone projectile point wound in the lower arm (Stryd 1980), indicating the existence of conflict in the region as early as 500 B.C. This individual was obviously cared for until his wounds healed.

Given mountain range impediments to ease of travel, as well as the location of the Canadian Plateau relative to the West Coast, the Plains, the Columbia Plateau, and the northern portion of the Cordilleran, relationships with neighbouring cultures appear to have been quite variable. While there was considerable contact between the people in the Mid-Fraser and Thompson River region with the coast, other areas of the Canadian Plateau exhibit relatively little evidence of significant coastal contact. Trade of steatite (soapstone), nephrite adzes, and basalt from the interior for dentalium beads and other marine shell objects from the coast, must only represent a limited reflection of a much broader trade in perishables such as dried salmon from the interior and eulachon fish oil from the coast. The best dried salmon came from the interior due to both excellent local wind drying conditions and the lower fat content of the salmon after they penetrated the interior from the coast (Romanoff 1985: 156). Dried salmon would eventually become the economic foundation of a coastal-interior trade network. Despite earlier suggestions to the contrary (Sanger 1967), there appears to have been significant contacts between the Canadian and Columbia plateaus. The sharing of a winter pit house village settlement pattern based upon stored foods, as well as certain projectile point styles, such as the corner-notched and basally-notched dart heads, indicate a relationship. The aforementioned projectile point styles are earlier in the Columbia Plateau and were probably derived from that area. Similarly, the earliest pit houses in the Upper Columbia Plateau date to around 3,000 B.C. (Lohse and Sammons-Lohse 1986) while the earliest appearance of these distinctive structures in the Canadian Plateau are dated approximately 1,000 years later suggesting probable south to north diffusion. Contacts with Late Plains culture are also apparent and particularly so in the earlier portion of Period IV. Dentalium and Olivella shell beads on contemporary Late Plains culture sites represent a further indication of trade between the two cultures. Northern contacts, such as trade in Mount Edziza obsidian from the headwaters of the Skeena River, appears to have been limited (Wright and Carlson 1987). Penetration of Eyak-Athapaskan speakers into former Late Plateau culture territories south of 55° north latitude did not occur until around the beginning of Period V (A.D. 500). The relationship of the Upper Kootenay region of southeastern British Columbia to Late Plateau culture or Late Plains culture cannot be properly assessed at this time. Pit house villages, although rare, have been recorded in the region (Borden 1956) but their time depth has not been determined. Southeastern British Columbia chert and argillite, however, is common on some Alberta Foothills sites (e.g. Driver 1993: Figures 4 and 5).

Late Plateau societies consisted of a number of individual families grouped into local bands with the kinship network being extended through inter-band marriages. It is probable, as has been documented by European observers, that a number of bands coalesced temporarily into a common winter village. It has been proposed that ranked societies developed at this time, as suggested by the variable sizes of individual pit houses in winter villages and other lines of evidence (Hayden et al. 1985). On the other hand, the contents of the houses, large and small, generally provide little convincing evidence of a biased distribution of luxury goods in favour of the larger dwellings despite claims to the contrary (Hayden and Spafford 1993). The larger pit houses of Period III and Period IV in the Mid-Fraser and Thompson River area, however, do suggest a more complex socioeconomic pattern (Pokotylo and Froese 1983: 152). There is evidence of distinct corporate groups occupying specific dwellings on a continuous basis for as long as 1,000 years. These different corporate groups within the same community exploited different regions for mineral resources indicating ownership of designated resource areas by specific family groupings in the society (Hayden et al. 1996). Resource ownership, however, is not necessarily indicative of ranked societies and could be simply an expression of the traditional rights of individual corporate groups and families making up the society. Also, the large pit houses could have been the dwellings of local chiefs or the different band chiefs in multi-band winter villages that attracted larger numbers of residential followers. Large dwellings would have been required to accommodate winter ceremonies such as have been historically documented among the Lillooet. Dwelling size differences among other corporate groups like the Iroquois, for example, were not indicative of ranking within the society per se, nor was the fact that certain clan lineages and segments could exert control over specific resource areas. It has been speculated that historically recorded social systems, such as hereditary chiefs, private ownership of resources, and controlled trade, can be extended back 2,000 years ago in the Lillooet area (Hayden and Ryder 1991: 54) but only the second speculation has been demonstrated by archaeological evidence. There is a need to determine why some of the large pit house villages appear to have been occupied for only a short period, such as the Kamloops Reserve site (Wilson 1972), while others were occupied continuously for more than 1,000 years, such as the Keatly Creek site (Hayden and Spafford 1993), or why the portion of the former site, that survived the bulldozers, was characterized by uniform sized pit houses associated with small pits that appear to have been sweat lodges or other special purpose features and, in these respects, differed significantly from the Keatly Creek site settlement pattern. There is also the problem of how these larger pit houses were roofed. The post mould pattern (e.g. Hayden and Spafford 1993: Figure 10) provides few clues and thus it is possible that such dwellings were not roofed in the ethnographically recorded fashion of domed structures with an entrance via log ladder through the peak of the roof.

A limitation in the evidence relating to Late Plateau culture as a whole has been the heavy reliance upon pit house village excavations, with their generally mixed cultural deposits, to reconstruct the culture history. Some excavations, however, have revealed single occupation houses and even villages (Wilson 1972) and, as a result, a reliable culture history appears to have been realized despite problems of component mixture due to house re-use and the multiple occupation of village site locales. There is likely to be some degree of under representation of the older segments of winter villages in river valleys due to erosion (Richards and Rousseau 1987: 54). It has only been recently that focus has been directed away from the winter villages to small veneer, warm weather campsites exploiting a range of resources such as roots and berries (Pokotylo 1981). A major limitation has been site destruction due to land development, particularly the creation of hydro-electric reservoirs that have flooded entire river valleys. Looting is a serious problem in certain areas like Kamloops. A less obvious problem is to be found in the publication of the archaeological record and its availability. In the most recent synthesis of Canadian Plateau archaeology (Richards and Rousseau 1987) 37% of the 214 references represent unpublished manuscripts, theses, and papers presented at meetings.

Volume IVolume II

Back Menu - A History of the Native People of Canada Continue