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

Early Shield Culture (Précis, Chapter 8)

The sparse information on Early Shield culture can all be considered in a précis. As was the case with the neighbouring Early Great Lakes-St. Lawrence culture, Early Shield culture is more a working hypothesis than a clearly demonstrable culture. It is an unavoidable fact that the incremental nature of archaeological research often requires the formulation of premature cultural constructs, particularly when attempting to draw together widely scattered bits of information to form some kind of coherent picture. The demonstration, rejection, and, most certainly, modification of the working hypothesis presented here rests with the recovery of more substantial evidence at some future date. The fact that a hypothesis can be proposed is based upon certain threads of evidence whose degree of validity will eventually be testable. In attempting to construct a synthesis of this nature the interweaving of cultures representing working hypotheses with more substantial cultural classifications is unavoidable.

The basis for suggesting the existence of an Early Shield culture between 8,000 and 4,000 B.C. is certain technological characteristics and trends which suggest the development of such a culture from a late Eastern and Northern Plano cultural base (Buchner 1981; 1984; Wheeler 1978; Wright 1972; 1976). It is speculated that this culture occupied the western portion of the Canadian Shield as it became habitable after glaciation. There are also a number of early radiocarbon dates from Ontario and Manitoba. This has led to the proposition that "The Shield Archaic evolved from a late Palaeo-Indian (Plano tradition) cultural base in the eastern Northwest Territories and probably the western portions of the Boreal Forest-Canadian Shield" (Wright 1972: 69). Technological trends apparent on Northern Plano sites in Keewatin District have added support to the hypothesis (Wright 1976: 91-93). Firmer evidence comes from the Sinnock site in southeastern Manitoba that was situated in the Parklands between the Boreal Forest and the Grasslands at the time of its occupation (Buchner 1981; 1984; Wheeler 1978).

The limited evidence pertaining to Early Shield culture should not come as a surprise. The dramatically fluctuating water levels of the Upper Great Lakes during this time period (Prest 1970: Figure XII-16) means that many sites are now situated on elevated standlines in the heavily forested hinterlands of the Upper Great Lakes. Given the proximity of the Tyrrell Sea, glacial ice and associated lakes to the north it can also be inferred that much of the area was likely in various stages of biotic recovery and were not particularly richly endowed with food resources, a factor guaranteeing small human populations. An equally important limiting factor is the simple nature of Early Shield culture technology that, for the most part, cannot be identified outside of a datable archaeological context. It is unknown, for example, how many of the bifacially flaked preforms and knives from major quarry sites along the northshore of the Upper Great Lakes pertain to Early Shield culture. Certainly large preforms similar to those recorded at the Foxie Otter site (Hanks 1988) are abundant at quarry sites like the Sheguiandah site on Manitoulin Island (Lee 1957). If the hypothesis is correct that the transformation of late Plano culture in the Canadian Shield region into Early Shield culture essentially involved a change in projectile point styles related to the adoption of the spearthrower and the appearance of other traits, such as flaked adzes with ground bits, accompanied by a dramatic change in stone knapping techniques, then the assemblage will be very difficult to recognize from later materials unless recovered in a datable context. Small sites with a generalized stone tool kit occurring on mixed multi-component sites are usually impossible to either isolate into distinctive cultural components or date. The O.S.A. Lake site (Storck 1974) is a fortunate exception to the foregoing. Projectile points similar to the early side-notched projectile point forms found in association with late Plano culture sites (Buckmaster and Paquette 1988; Greenman and Stanley 1940; Lee 1957; Mason and Irwin 1960) do occur on multi-component sites in the Canadian Shield (Wright 1972a: Plate VI, Figures 1 and 9, Plate XIII, Figure 5). The fact that early ground stone tools, such as the gouge and the lance, have been recovered from sites like the Fretz site (Ibid: Plate XII) also suggests that some of the projectile points from this site are likely early. As has been suggested by others, however, (Hanks 1988; Stewart 1991; Storck 1974) increasingly sophisticated analytical techniques are going to be required to recognize and isolate the early occupational debris from later materials. For example, an AMS date of a sliver of wooden spear shaft from a conical copper projectile point from South Fowl Lake on the Ontario - Minnesota border just west of Lake Superior provided a radiocarbon date of 4,800 B.C. (William Ross, Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Recreation, Thunder Bay: Personal communication, 1994; Beukens et al. 1992). The date raises the possibility that the working of native copper in the area was considerably earlier than originally believed. In stark contrast to the paucity of hard evidence on Early Shield culture is the rich archaeological data during Middle Shield culture times (4,000 to 1,000 B.C.). It is also possible to 'down stream' from the earliest components of Middle Shield culture sites like the Migod site (Gordon 1976) in order to acquire insights into what the technology of the later portion of Early Shield culture must have looked like. Until more Early Shield culture sites are excavated, however, the construct will have to remain as a parsimonious but largely untested hypothesis.

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