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

Middle Northwest Interior Culture (Précis, Chapter 20)

Early research in northwestern North America (Johnson 1946; Rainey 1940) indicated archaeological connections between Asia and North America and it was this interest in the initial peopling of the Western Hemisphere that led to focused research in the area (MacNeish 1951; 1953; 1954; 1955; 1956; 1959; 1960). Most subsequent work has built upon or attempted to re-interpret R. S. MacNeish's cultural sequences with acknowledged undramatic results (Clark and Morlan 1982). Pertinent to Period III is MacNeish's view that his Northwest Microblade tradition represented a constellation of traits coming from different regions, such as microblade technology from Siberia and notched projectile points from the Plains (MacNeish 1953; 1964). This view would still appear to be partially valid or, at least, more accommodating of the evidence than the major alternative. The alternative view proposes that the indigenous populations of the northwestern interior were replaced by southern Archaic hunters prior to 4,000 B.C. (Anderson 1970). MacNeish's Northwest Microblade tradition and Anderson's Northern Archaic tradition, or their equivalents, are subsumed within Middle Northwest Interior culture with the Northern Archaic being simply a late phase in the development. Relative to the history of archaeological research the southwest Yukon was the locale of one of the earliest attempts to integrate archaeological evidence with associated environmental information (Johnson and Raup 1964).

Projectile Points - Photograph: Richard Garner - CMC 2001-63 Middle Northwest Interior Culture Projectile Points

The photograph illustrates the wide variety of projectile point forms that can occur on sites of this culture. Most of the specimens are from sites in the Yukon.

(Reproduced from Clark 1991: Plate 14. Photograph: Richard Garner, CMC 2001-63)

Middle Northwest Interior culture must be viewed in relationship to its geographical setting. The region is physiographically dominated by the northwest trending Cordillera consisting of coastal and interior mountain ranges with intervening smaller mountain ranges and plateaus. Major drainages are the Yukon and the Mackenzie, two of the largest river systems in the world. Within this complex mosaic of landforms, small hunting bands relied upon fish and caribou as well as regionally and seasonally available small game, waterfowl, mountain sheep, moose, bison, and berries. To survive in a region with widely dispersed food resources and peak periods of abundance and scarcity has always demanded a broadly based and flexible foraging pattern.

The sparse archaeological remains left by small, mobile groups of people have forced archaeologists to rely upon relatively simple and often equivocal criterion in order to establish cultural constructs. Thus, there is considerable controversy and a proliferation of named constructs including Denali, Northwest Microblade, American Palaeo-Arctic, Tuktu, and Northern Archaic. The last two constructs pertain to assemblages possessing notched points but supposedly lacking microblade technology as distinct from the others. It has been the presence or absence of these two elements of technology, notched projectile points and microblades, which have been the major criteria for distinguishing cultures in the area. For example, it has been proposed that around 4,000 B.C. Archaic hunters of ultimate eastern North American origin, possessing notched projectile points, spread northward from the Plains with the expanding boreal forest to displace indigenous populations whose tool kits were characterized by microblades (Anderson 1970). Despite the fact that considerable evidence does not support the simple replacement of an earlier microblade-using culture by an alien culture coming out of the northern Plains, it is still generally accepted as a major culture history model for the region (Clark 1987; Dumond 1978) albeit with increasing hesitation and qualification (Clark 1992). In order to accommodate the archaeological evidence, the conquest and assimilation explicit in the hypothesis must have taken place at different times in different areas. The population replacement hypothesis is rejected here on the grounds that a considerable body of archaeological evidence suggests cultural continuity and not cultural replacement. Cultural discontinuity explicit in the replacement hypothesis would appear to be a product of an overly optimistic acceptance of the taxonomic value of notched points and microblades as indicators of total cultures. Rather than representing a population influx, the sudden appearance of notched points is regarded here as evidence of the northward diffusion of the spearthrower weapon system, a process that began 4,000 years earlier in southeastern North America. It has been necessary to create a new name for the culture under consideration in order to avoid a classificatory association with and a reliance upon either microblades or notched projectile points. Middle Northwest Interior culture is an admittedly tentative construct but it is sufficiently open-ended to accommodate the vagaries of an impoverished archaeological record in a region subjected to influences from a number of different areas. It would appear that the difficulties faced by linguists in attempting to classify the northern Athapascan languages of the same region, with their amalgams of regionally shared language characteristics (Krauss and Golla 1981: 68), is also reflected in the archaeological record.

There is limited archaeological evidence in the central Mackenzie District (Clark 1987: 148) from 5,000 B.C. to the Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture intrusion into the interior around 2,000 B.C. This situation does not apply to the southwestern Mackenzie District, the Yukon Territory, the western Great Bear Lake region and other parts of the Mackenzie Corridor, and northeastern Alberta (Clark 1987; Gordon and Savage 1973; 1974; LeBlanc and Ives 1986; Losey et al.: No date; MacNeish 1954; 1955; Millar 1981). As there is no environmental explanation for the human void in the central Mackenzie District it is likely a problem of archaeological visibility rather than an actual absence of people.

Northwestern North America is geographically situated to receive influences from a number of directions but its major relationships appear to have been to the west with Alaska. There is no evidence of eastern influences from the Barrengrounds of Keewatin District and the eastern Mackenzie District. Despite claims to the contrary, influences from the south out of the Plains appear to be represented by the diffusion of technology, such as the spearthrower, rather than being indicative of population intrusions. For example, the lanceolate point forms from the northwestern interior that are frequently attributed to the Plano culture of the Plains appear on the grounds of dating, the existence of a major hiatus in the geographical distributions of the points in question, and differing point attributes, to be unrelated to those of the Plains and are best regarded as a distinctive northern lance style weapon tip. It is possible that the importance of communal hunting of caribou herds in northwestern North America assured the retention of the thrusting lance long after it had disappeared or was reduced in popularity in other parts of North America. The fact that such lanceolate points are found with or without notched projectile points or microblades highlights the problem of relying upon a limited number of 'index fossils' to classify cultures. Given the chronic problems of small samples of generally non-descript materials recovered from poor contexts that characterize the archaeology of northwestern North America it is not surprising that there are classificatory problems. Such problems are a direct product of limitations in the data base compounded by an overly heavy reliance upon the limited formal tools such as microblades, burins, and notched and lanceolate projectile points.

By the beginning of Period III Middle Northwest Interior culture technology is characterized by microblade production based upon wedge-shaped and tabular-shaped cores, burins of a number of varieties with the notched transverse burin being most distinctive, lanceolate points, a range of scraper and biface knife varieties, gravers, drills, net-sinkers and some other minor items. The most common tools were simple expedient flake tools. As microblade technology began to wane, notched projectile points were introduced. There was also an increase in large biface knives and end scrapers. Notched projectile points appear to have been grafted onto the earlier assemblage but at different times in different regions. Notched points, for example, appear as early as 5,500 B.C. in northern Alaska but as late as 3,750 B.C. in the southwest Yukon.

Poor bone preservation restricts direct evidence of subsistence practises. Site distributions indicate that fishing was an important summer to fall activity with the fish camps likely representing the period of the year when the band or bands could gather together at one location to arrange marriages and reaffirm the solidarity of the society. One must qualify such a generalization, however, as a successful caribou pound could have permitted large gatherings of people at single sites in winter but at locations very difficult for current archaeological field reconnaissance techniques to discover. With reference to settlement pattern distributions and pertinent to the hypothesized displacement of microblade-users by notched projectile point-users, the two assemblages appear on the same sites time and again suggesting that there was no significant change in site use and, therefore, subsistence. Such continuity of settlement patterns and presumably subsistence adds support to the argument that a cultural replacement did not take place and that change was a product of technological diffusion and temporal trends. There is a consensus among archaeologists that the late portion of this cultural development led directly to the historic Athapascan-speaking people of northwestern North America.

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