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

Palaeo-Indian Culture (Précis, Chapter 2)

The colonizing of the Western Hemisphere by people with a Palaeo-Indian culture and its derivatives was a truly momentous accomplishment. In the history of Homo sapiens it falls into the same record of achievements as the population movements which occupied Europe and Asia and reached Australia between 30,000 and 40,000 B.P. (Jelinek 1992). Just as the magnitude of the colonizing event was unique so are some of the characteristics of Palaeo-Indian culture. Analogies with historically documented hunting peoples are not totally appropriate given the nature of some of the Palaeo-Indian cultural systems, particularly the maintenance of technological continuity over enormous distances. Such an ability must reflect social systems that operated on a scope beyond our historically recorded comparisons. These systems initially functioned within a wide range of changing and highly variable Pleistocene environments. What follows, therefore, must be prefaced with the caveat that just as the rapid spread of Palaeo-Indian culture throughout the Western Hemisphere was unique so are the problems of explaining the phenomenon. In the archaeological history of the Western Hemisphere only the Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture occupation of the High Arctic and Greenland around 2,000 B.C. is comparable albeit on a reduced scale.

Map I - Palaeo-Indian and Plano Cultures
Map I - Distributions of Palaeo-Indian and Plano Cultures
1 Western Variant | 2 Eastern Variant | 3 Northern Variant

A Palaeo-Indian Sites | B Water | C Glacial Ice Edge | D Tundra Vegetation Province | E Lichen Woodland Vegetation Province | F Boreal Forest Vegetation Province | G Deciduous Forest Vegetation Province

In addition to showing the geographical distributions of Palaeo-Indian and Plano cultures, Map I provides an impression of the changing physiographic features and major plant communities through time. It was within these dramatically different environments that the earliest people lived.

(Adapted, in part, from Plates 2 and 5 of the Historical Atlas of Canada, Volume I, From the Beginning to 1800. R. Cole Harris, editor, and Geoffrey J. Matthews, cartographer/designer. University of Toronto Press, 1987. Drawing by Mr. David W. Laverie.)

Dr. James B. Griffin recommended that the term Palaeo-Indian be restricted to the users of the distinctive fluted spear head, the hallmark artifact of Palaeo-Indian culture (Griffin 1977: 10). Thus, Plano culture, which developed out of late Palaeo-Indian culture in the west, is not referred to as Late Palaeo-Indian contrary to current practise. The Plano cultures of the west and the Archaic cultures of the east were equivalent developments. The exclusion of Plano cultures from the Palaeo-Indian designation and their treatment as a western equivalent of Archaic in the east represents a more coherent classificatory arrangement.

Despite the fact that between A.D. 1895 and 1932 there were a number of reported associations of extinct bison remains with stone tools on the Plains (Rogers and Martin 1986) the evidence was not generally accepted by archaeologists until the advent of radiocarbon dating (Wilmsen 1965). A number of archaeologists began to change their minds, however, in 1925 when stone spear heads associated with the bones of extinct bison at a site near Folsom, New Mexico were excavated by archaeologists (Figgins 1927). The distinctive style of spear head uncovered at this site was subsequently recognized as being widely distributed east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States and Canada (Cotter 1937). Sites producing such points often contained evidence of geological and environmental conditions significantly different from the present and with the advent of radiocarbon dating were consistently dated between 11,500 and 10,500 B.P. Because this wide-spread culture has been firmly dated and stratigraphically appears to represent the first human occupation many archaeologists accept it as the earliest unequivocal evidence of people in the habitable portions of North America exclusive of Beringia. Initially defined in the central Plains, the earliest and most wide-spread manifestation is called Clovis while later expressions of the culture are referred to as Folsom. There is, however, no gap between the radiocarbon dates of early (Clovis) and late (Folsom) Palaeo-Indian culture (Haynes et al. 1984). At the Lindenmeier site in Colorado both early and late styles of fluted spear points were recovered in association along with unfluted points (Wilmsen and Roberts 1978). It is apparent that there is a cultural continuum from early to late Palaeo-Indian culture marked by increasing cultural regionalism through time. This regionalism is sufficiently pronounced in western and eastern North America that many archaeologists believe western-derived terms like Clovis and Folsom are being over-extended when applied to Palaeo-Indian assemblages east of the Mississippi River (Deller and Ellis 1992).

In this study Clovis, Folsom, and related eastern classifications, are subsumed under the category 'Palaeo-Indian culture'. The term 'culture' is used as a label to describe a broadly shared, predominantly technological, cultural pattern (Frison 1983; Haynes 1980; MacDonald 1983; Wilmsen 1965; Wormington 1957). The spread of Palaeo-Indian culture coincided with the massive environmental changes that accompanied the end of the Pleistocene period; changes related to climate, vegetation, hydrology, erosional-depositional cycles, and animal extinctions and population densities. Palaeo-Indian people encountered unique environments, consisting of mosaics of plant communities which have no direct parallels today, as well as glacial ice and associated water bodies, and a range of fauna that included species such as mammoth, horse, camel, and large extinct varieties of bison. At the end of the Pleistocene plant communities changed rapidly and a number of the large fauna, both prey and predator, became extinct. The role played by Palaeo-Indians in these extinctions is still being debated. There is evidence that Palaeo-Indian culture established the base from which most later regional cultures developed with Archaic cultures evolving in the east and Plano cultures in the west.

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