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

Middle Shield Culture (Précis, Chapter 16)

Shield culture represented the first significant human occupation of the Canadian Shield, an enormous region encompassing a southwestern portion of the Northwest Territories, most of Manitoba, northern Ontario, northern Québec including a portion of the northshore of the St. Lawrence, and Labrador (Wright 1972; 1981). Shield culture developed out of the Plano culture of southern Keewatin District and eastern Manitoba around 6,000 B.C. Elements of this development involved a dependency upon caribou and fish supported by a generalized adaptation to the ecosystems of the Canadian Shield (see Feit 1973). Western bands of Shield culture gradually occupied the Canadian Shield as it was released from the glacial ice and associated bodies of water and was colonized by plant communities and their associated faunas. This incremental process resulted in the occupation of the Canadian Shield following a west to east cline with the Hudson Bay Lowlands of Ontario and much of Québec and Labrador not being settled until around 2,000 B.C. The Cree, Ojibwa, Algonkin, Montagnais, and the Beothuck of the time of European contact are regarded as the direct descendants of Shield culture. The close cultural and linguistic affinities between the aforementioned people, exclusive of the Beothuck who became extinct before their language could be properly studied, reflects the exceptional degree to which Shield cultural systems were interconnected throughout a region that covers nearly half of Canada. Factors favouring this 'sameness' were as follows: the association of major food resources with the interconnecting waterways of the Canadian Shield that also functioned as the communication routes in both summer and winter; a broadly adapted subsistence pattern centred on caribou and fish that required considerable territory for small bands of people due to fluctuations in caribou populations compounded by the erratic impact of endemic and often massive forest fires; a flexible social system favouring wide-ranging relationships that was cemented by interband marriages; limited cultural intrusions or influences from neighbouring cultures; and the late colonization of much of the eastern Canadian Shield.

Northern Algonquian Camp - CMC 594
Northern Algonquian Camp

Settlement pattern evidence suggests that Middle Shield culture people followed a way of life essentially the same as that of the Cree, Ojibwa, Algonkin, and Montagnais peoples documented by Europeans observers. With few exceptions only the vaguest evidence of dwellings, such as the bark covered structures in the photograph, has survived in the archaeological record. No trace of the bark canoe, so essential to travel in the vast tracts of the Canadian Shield, has ever been recovered. Manufactured from wood, bark, and leather the majority of the sophisticated technology required for survival has simply vanished from the archaeological record. Note also that the camp is situated on an active beach that would be awash part of the year further dispersing the sparse evidence of human occupation.

(Canadian Museum of Civilization, Canadian Ethnology Service, Negative 594: T. L. Weston, 1884, Jackfish River, Lake Winnipeg, Swampy Cree?)

The technology of Middle Shield culture is characterized by chipped stone knives, scrapers, and projectile points and a general absence of tools formed by stone grinding. As with most cultures, the major tool category was the unmodified flake whose naturally sharp edges could be used for a wide range of cutting, scraping, and slotting tasks. Native copper implements are particularly common on sites in proximity to the copper sources of Lake Superior. There is also evidence of an extensive trade in copper to Middle Great Lakes-St. Lawrence culture populations in the Ottawa Valley. Through time there appears to be an increase in the number of scrapers and side-notched projectile points at the expense of large bifacially flaked knives and lanceolate points. Bone in any form is usually absent except as small calcined fragments. As a result, the inference of a reliance upon caribou and fish must be based upon settlement pattern distributions. A number of caches of stone and copper implements found in Manitoba, Ontario, and Québec are interpreted as 'boneless' graves where acid soils have dissolved the bone. One of the Manitoba sites did contain some human remains. Red ochre, chipped stone tool kits often including items manufactured from Knife River chalcedony from North Dakota and native copper implements, characterizes these features in Manitoba and Ontario suggesting that by 2,000 B.C. elaborate mortuary ritualism was being practiced by at least those Middle Shield culture populations bordering the more southerly centres of ceremonial elaboration.

Middle Shield culture dwellings ranged from substantial semi-subterranean structures with excavated entrance-ways to very flimsy dwellings that have left little archaeological trace. Settlement pattern distributions do not change in most areas of the Canadian Shield from the earliest human occupation up to the time of European contact indicating that subsistence rounds had been relatively stable over thousands of years. Given the relatively consistent nature of animal behaviour and the stability of the land forms such a situation is not surprising. Unfortunately stratified sites are a rare occurrence and most sites consist of hopelessly mixed cultural debris of untold numbers of campsites representing thousands of years of seasonal occupations. This difficulty of component isolation is the single most serious limitation facing Canadian Shield archaeology.

The Parklands along the southwestern flank of the Middle Shield culture distribution and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence vegetation province (McAndrews et al. 1987: Plate 4) flanking the southeastern border have acted as major areas of contact between different cultures. These cultural boundaries shifted through time as a result of climatically induced conditions that were either advantageous or disadvantageous to different cultural adaptations. While the cultural homogeneity of Middle Shield culture has been emphasized there is regionalism that is most pronounced along the southern boundaries of the Middle Shield cultural distribution where influences from neighbouring cultures were most intense. Regional differences are to be expected within a cultural construct with the space and time dimensions proposed for Shield culture but these differences would appear to be minor relative to the shared cultural characteristics.

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