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

Middle Plateau Culture (Précis, Chapter 18)

The archaeological record of the Canadian Plateau has elicited a range of conflicting opinions regarding the culture history of the region. It appears that sparse information and cultural regionalism has made syntheses difficult for the interior Pacific Northwest in general and the Canadian Plateau in particular (Leonhardy 1982: 85). The Canadian Plateau is composed of the territories between the Coastal Range and the Rocky Mountains, south to the International Boundary and north to the headwaters of the Fraser River at 54º latitude. Influences and/or people could enter the region from the Plains to the east, the Columbia Plateau to the south, the Pacific coast via the major river valleys, and the north through the Cordillera. Limitations in the archaeological record, as well as a heavy reliance upon such criterion as the presence or absence of microblades and the presence of certain projectile point types, have further complicated the situation.

Pit House Construction Pit House Construction Pit House Construction
Middle Plateau Culture Pit House Construction

The photographs illustrate three stages in the restoration of a pit house. While this particular dwelling is a copy of a recent pit house similar structures have been dated to 2,500 B.C.

(Reproduced from Wright 1976: Plate 26. See Wilmeth 1977)

What follows is an outline of the culture history of the region from 4,000 to 1,000 B.C. In this work diffusion of technologies and other cultural practices are considered to be mainly responsible for culture change rather than population replacements with their explicit assumptions of invasion and displacement or absorption of earlier people. Technological complexes, such as prepared microblade cores, are regarded as having relative rather than absolute significance in terms of cultural classification. In other words, the presence or absence of such an element of technology is insufficient ground in itself for positing major culture historical events. All systems of a culture should be considered in any cultural historical reconstruction and not single elements drawn from a single system such as technology. That said, it is readily admitted that there is fertile ground for continuing debate and what follows in one person's viewpoint. For a succinct consideration of the problems facing synthesizers of Canadian Plateau archaeology see Richards and Rousseau (1987).

Middle Plateau culture is the descendant of Early Plateau culture. By 4,000 B.C. or slightly earlier a gradual change to a seasonal subsistence-settlement pattern economy based upon salmon in conjunction with the introduction of the spearthrower weapon system from the east and/or south, resulted in changes to the cultural pattern. Contrary to the position of cultural continuity taken here, in a recent synthesis of Plateau archaeology these changes are interpreted as evidence of a population intrusion up the Fraser River from the coast by a pre-adapted salmon fishing population unrelated to Early Plateau culture whose descendants they replaced (Stryd and Rousseau: In press). The development of the Plateau Pithouse tradition around 2,500 B.C., with its riverine pit house villages and salmon storage technology, established a cultural horizon across the Canadian Plateau. Based upon the appearance of pit houses this tradition, with its three sequential horizons (Richards and Rousseau 1987), represents a practical and flexible way of classifying the archaeological evidence but it need not have involved an intrusive population. Cultural continuities between Early and Middle Plateau cultures suggest that cultural changes were the product of indigenous people in the Plateau adopting a number of innovations, including a subsistence/settlement pattern based upon salmon. The transition to large pit house villages appears to have been a lengthy process. In contrast to the controversy surrounding the origins of Middle Plateau culture there appears to be agreement that it represented the cultural base from which the Salish-speaking peoples encountered by Europeans in the early 19th century developed.

Middle Plateau culture is an admittedly ill-defined cultural construct. The early portion of the cultural development has not been identified in the adjacent Okanagan and Arrow Lakes regions of south-central British Columbia. In the Kootenai region of southeastern British Columbia archaeological evidence is comparable, in a number of respects, to Middle Plains culture. Middle Plateau culture subsistence information is both limited and concentrated in the major river valleys. While salmon and deer appear to have been of greatest importance it is apparent that all resources, ranging from fresh water mussels to skunks, were exploited. It is not possible at this time to assess the role of plant foods that were so important in the diet of people at the time of European contact. Around 2,500 B.C. subsistence began to focus increasingly upon the harvesting of salmon and other anadromous fish (Kuijt 1989). It is suggested that the change in subsistence pattern was related to environmental factors such as an increasingly cool and moist climate that favoured increased river levels and thus expanding salmon spawning grounds. The use of local stone in tool manufacturing suggests limited relationships with adjacent cultures. Marine shell artifacts and exotic stone do occur but are extremely rare. It is not until the end of Period III and major settlement pattern changes associated with a focused emphasis upon salmon that external contacts become apparent, particularly with the coast.

Some of the preceding comments may be viewed as a criticism of archaeologists working in the Canadian Plateau and this is not the case. The Plateau is an exceptionally difficult region in which to establish syntheses (Richards and Rousseau 1987). Most archaeological excavation has naturally focused on the large, multi-component pit house villages in the river valleys thus providing a biased sample. The topographic extremes of the region, with their associated variable resources, required a dispersed settlement pattern involving innumerable small transitory camp sites containing limited cultural debris. Natural sedimentary processes have obliterated or hidden much of the early archaeological record. Finally, the cul-de-sac topography of the region lends itself to an exceptional degree of cultural regionalism That said, there has been a tendency to link the local culture history too closely to the cultural developments of the Coast, the Plains, the Subarctic, and the Columbia Plateau. As occurs elsewhere, an over-reliance upon microblade technology and projectile point typology to establish cultural constructs and identify cultures has resulted in differing interpretations.

Historically the area was occupied by members of the Salish language family (Kinkade and Suttles 1987). Exceptions were/are a small enclave of Nicola Eyak-Athapascan speakers and the Kootenai or Kootenay. With reference to the Kootenai-speakers, however, there is a possibility of a 'distant genetic' relationship with Salish (Campbell and Mithun 1979: 37-38). Northwestern North America Indian languages, from northern Oregon to Alaska and east to the Foothills of the Rocky Mountains, share many language features suggesting either a shared ancestry or a convergence of language traits due to close contacts over a long period of time. Linguistically the situation is unique in North America. The proposal of an original indigenous population changing its culture through selective adoption of outside innovations appears to be in accord with the linguistic evidence. An in situ origin hypothesis would negate the atypical hunter-gatherer behaviour of territorial conquest explicit in the alternative replacement hypothesis.

There is general agreement that the most important single event in Middle Plateau culture development during Period III was the transition from mobile hunting people to semi-permanent village dwellers increasingly reliant upon stored salmon as the primary winter food (Kuijt 1989). This transition to village life began around 2,000 B.C.

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