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

Middle Plains Culture (Précis, Chapter 17)

Period III falls into the middle of a classificatory unit used on the Northern Plains called the Mesoindian Period (Wormington and Forbis 1965) that extends from the end of Plano culture to the Neoindian Period and involves a time range from 8,000 to 2,000 B.P. In a succinct, insightful summary of the Mesoindian Period it has been proposed that the continuous occupation of the short grass Grasslands did not occur until shortly after the beginning of Period III as used in this work and was due to five major factors. These were as follows: the amelioration of the Altithermal droughts; the evolution of the modern bison species from earlier, extinct species; the training of the dog to carry and pull household affects thus markedly increasing mobility; the construction of tipi rings and ceremonial structures using field stones; and the introduction of the method of boiling water with hot rocks in order to produce the grease necessary in the manufacture pemmican (Forbis 1992: 59).

Bison Skeletal Parts - Drawing: David Laverie Bison Skeletal Parts from the Harder Site, Saskatchewan

Bones and pieces positively identifiedBones and pieces positively identified
Represented by comminuted boneRepresented by comminuted bone

In most instances only selected fat and marrow rich bones were carried back to camp from the kill site. The portion of the head most often found, for example, is the marrow-rich jaw. Limb bones, rich in marrow as well as being a source of raw material for tools, probably were carried back to camp encased in their flesh. As can be seen from the drawing, the spinal column, the pelvic girdle, and skull appear to have been largely abandoned at the kill location. Comminuted bone refers to highly fragmented bone.

(Adapted from Dyck 1977: Figures 7 and 8. Drawing by Mr. David W. Laverie.)

Perhaps to a greater extent than any other region of Canada cultural developments on the Northern Plains has been based upon changes in projectile point styles. Given the general nature of most of the remaining chipped stone technology this emphasis upon one tool category is understandable. In many instances, however, the reliance upon projectile point types to reconstruct culture history has created problems. Even the major archaeological complexes are essentially based on their characteristic point types. The 3,000 years involved in Period III is dominated by three such sequential complexes. The earliest is called Oxbow and was first recognized at the Oxbow Dam site in southeastern Saskatchewan. There is a consensus that the Oxbow complex developed out of earlier, indigenous occupations characterized by side-notched points variously called Mummy Cave, Bitteroot, Salmon River, etc. (Walker 1992: 132-142). The second complex is generally referred to as McKean or as McKean/Duncan/Hanna or some combination of the three different but intergrading and sequential projectile point styles. The McKean complex has been regarded as an intrusive culture on the Canadian Plains with ultimate origins in the Great Basin of Nevada, Utah and adjoining states. Contrary to the preceding, a hypothesis advocating a single unbroken development from Oxbow to McKean is favoured in this work. The third and latest complex is called Pelican Lake and is believed to have developed out of the McKean complex. These three complexes are all included under the rubric Middle Plains culture. If the relationship between the Oxbow and McKean complexes should eventually be demonstrated to be something other than a single, in situ, cultural development then separate cultural designations will be necessary.

Each complex encompasses roughly 1,000 years within Period III (Oxbow - 4,000 to 3,000 B.C., McKean - 3,000 to 2,000 B.C., and Pelican Lake - 2,000 to 1,000 B.C.) with the Pelican Lake complex continuing into Period IV (1,000 B.C. to A.D. 500). Given the fact that many of the Pelican Lake complex dates fall into Period IV or straddle the Period III/Period IV boundary, the complex will be mainly considered within the Late Plains culture of Period IV. The preceding date ranges represent a simplified view of the radiocarbon evidence and substantial overlapping of dates occurs within the linear progression from Oxbow to McKean to Pelican Lake as revealed by stratigraphy. In this respect, the radiocarbon chronology and the stratigraphic chronology are somewhat at odds. As each of the complexes within Period III encompasses approximately the same amount of time, the complex names are retained as useful designations for the early, middle, and late segments of Middle Plains culture development.

Much has been made of the fact that the Oxbow and McKean complexes generally post-date the Altithermal. One palaeoclimatic classificatory system (Bryson et al. 1970) suggests that the warm and dry period of the Altithermal, that ended around 3,500 B.C., permitted the maximum extension of the grasslands. During a cooler and moister period shortly after 2,000 B.C. the forests encroached upon the parklands and grasslands by some 50 km to 100 km with the modern climate becoming stabilized around 500 B.C. It was after 2,000 B.C. that significant evidence of mass communal killing of bison herds becomes apparent. This development has been equated with an increase in bison populations (Dyck and Morlan: In press). In addition to bison, however, Middle Plains culture people were capable of exploiting the resources of the Boreal Forest and the Mountain/Foothills environmental zones. Both the Kootenay and Peace River regions of British Columbia appear to have been occupied by Middle Plains culture with the Oxbow complex mainly in the north (Fladmark 1981: 131-135) and both the Oxbow and McKean complexes in the south (Choquette 1972; 1973). Any suggestion that Middle Plains culture had a focal economy based solely upon bison underestimates the culture's adaptive capabilities even though the heart of Middle Plains culture was in the Grasslands/Parklands region.

The Middle Plains culture stone tool kit is dominated by projectile points, end scrapers, random flake scrapers, and biface knives. Of interest is the single stone tubular pipe from a McKean complex level at the Cactus Flower site in Alberta that dated to 2,700 B.C. If this item actually functioned as a smoking pipe, it would represent the earliest evidence of smoking in Canada. A characteristic Middle Plains culture trait was the use of local stone for tool production although limited amounts of exotic lithics, such as Knife River chalcedony from North Dakota and obsidian from Wyoming, are often present. The bone tool technology appears to be quite rudimentary. What would have been dominant elements in the tool kit, such as objects manufactured from skin and sinew and wood and plant fibres, of course, have not survived in the archaeological record.

Of considerable significance is the probability that all three complexes of Middle Plains culture shared some kind of common belief system. This is suggested by projectile point offerings representative of the point styles of all three complexes in the Majorville Medicine Wheel ceremonial feature (Calder 1977). Current differences in the manner in which the Oxbow, McKean, and Pelican Lake complexes treated their dead may eventually prove to be more a product of limited evidence and precise component identification than being indicative of actual cultural differences.

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