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A History of the Native People of Canada
Volume II (1,000 B.C. to A.D. 500)

Late Western Shield Culture (Précis, Chapter 25)

Late Western Shield culture (née Laurel) should be viewed relative to the exceptional expanse and variety of territory occupied. On an east-west line, the culture was distributed from the border of Québec, across Northern Ontario, throughout much of Manitoba and into east-central Saskatchewan, a straight line distance of more than 1,600 km. It occupied lands as far to the south as northern Michigan and Minnesota. This expanse of territory incorporated the northern and eastern margins of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Forest and the Parklands, respectively, and the Boreal Forest and Lichen Woodland vegetation provinces (McAndrews et al. 1987). Vegetation provinces are characterized by different compositions of plant species within which animal resources become increasingly impoverished as one advances to the north. For example, people in the southwestern portion of the Late Western Shield culture distribution had access to extensive stands of wild rice as well as Parkland animals such as bison. Accordingly, the density and size of archaeological sites decreases along a south to north cline reflecting the decreasing carrying capacities of the more northern ecological zones.

Late Western Shield Culture Burial Mound
A Late Western Shield (Laurel) Culture Burial Mound on the Long Sault Site

Situated on the north bank of the Rainy River in Northern Ontario, this mound represents the largest pre-European man-made feature in Canada. The two meter tall author in front of the mound provides an impression of scale. A cut through the edge of the mound visible in the photograph was done by a curious bulldozer operator. The site is now protected within the Manitou Mounds Provincial Park Reserve, a two kilometer long portion of the Ontario side of the Rainy River below the Long Sault Rapids.

(Reproduced from Wright 1972a: Plate 13)

Critical to Late Western Shield culture were the interconnected lake and river systems of the Canadian Shield and adjacent regions. Like their Middle Shield culture forbearers, people would have depended upon watercraft; presumably the birch bark canoe although no trace of this element of technology has survived in the archaeological record. Major water routes tend to be oriented along the east-west axis. For example, the upper Ottawa River connects to Lake Huron, thence to Lake Superior and westward via the Boundary Waters system between Ontario and Minnesota to the Winnipeg River and Lake Winnipeg. From this east-west main axis numerous routes provided access toward Hudson Bay to the north, westward via the Saskatchewan River, and south along the Red River. Changing environmental conditions favoured the Late Western Shield culture spread into the Rainy River and Winnipeg River regions, most of Manitoba, and the northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan area near The Pas. The foregoing regions were originally occupied by Plains cultures but increasingly moist and cool weather between 1,500 and 500 B.C. (Buchner 1979) led to a significant southwestern and western expansion of the Boreal Forest at the expense of the Parkland vegetation province with its bison herds. As the bison shifted westward with the retreating Parklands Plains culture bison hunters abandoned large areas to the east which were subsequently reoccupied by the forest adapted Late Western Shield hunters and fishermen.

There is a consensus that Late Western Shield culture descended from the preceding Middle Shield culture. Occupations by the two cultures frequently appear on the same sites, either separated stratigraphically or, along the northshore of Lake Superior, isolated from one another on elevated beaches by isostatic rebound, a process whereby the Earth's crust slowly recovers over a long time after having been depressed by the massive weight of glacial ice. As noted, most of extreme southwestern Northern Ontario, adjacent Manitoba, and all of east-central Saskatchewan had been previously occupied late in Period III by Middle Plains culture. The timing of the cultural replacement is a matter of some controversy. Late Western Shield culture (Laurel) introduced pottery into the area and much of the debate has centred around the antiquity of the pottery and the validity of presumed associated radiocarbon dates. Based upon the hypothesis that Late Western Shield pottery was obtained by diffusion from Late Great Lakes-St. Lawrence culture of the Lower Great Lakes (Wright 1972a: 59), it has been estimated that its introduction into the Canadian Shield could have taken place as early as 700 B.C. This would presuppose that the earliest pottery will occur along the southeastern margins of the Late Western Shield culture distribution. Others would argue for a Rainy River region point of origin for the earliest pottery (Reid and Rajnovich 1991: 228). Most archaeologists also regard the initial appearance of pottery and, thus, the transformation of Middle Shield culture into Late Western Shield culture, as having taken place somewhere around 200 to 300 B.C. (Buchner 1979; Dawson 1983; Reid and Rajnovich 1991). The radiocarbon evidence is still sufficiently equivocal, however, that archaeologists can indulge in ingenious reasons for rejecting or accepting dates relative to their particular working hypotheses. On the basis of a large number of late radiocarbon dates, for example, it has even been argued that Late Western Shield culture was contemporary for some 300 years with the Northern Algonquian culture of Period V (Blackduck complex) (Reid and Rajnovich 1991) contrary to the physical evidence from stratified sites and the separation of the two cultures on different elevated strandlines by isostatic rebound along the northshore of Lake Superior. Suffice to say, there is agreement that Late Western Shield culture was the ancestor of the Ojibwa and the western Cree. It is noteworthy that the distribution of Late Western Shield culture in Period IV correlates closely with the distribution of the foregoing Northern Algonquian peoples of Period V.

For approximately the first third of Period IV (1,000 to 500 B.C.), Late Western Shield culture is inseparable from its Middle Shield culture Period III ancestral base. Around 500 B.C., and probably earlier in the southeastern portion of the cultural distribution, a number of important technological changes took place. Pottery was introduced. Also by this time the bow and arrow weapon system appears to have largely replaced the earlier spearthrower. The latter development was a continuation of a process which began on the east coast towards the end of Period III. Technological trends noted in Middle Shield culture times are continued, such as the increasing frequencies of a wide variety of scraper forms, the decrease in numbers of biface knives, the scarcity or absence of ground stone tools, the use of native copper for the manufacture of a range of utilitarian and ornamental items, the frequent occurrence of red ochre nodules, the continuing production of linear flakes, and the sporadic appearance of stone netsinkers. Unlike the preceding Middle Shield culture situation, however, a rich bone tool technology has managed to survive in the form of beaver incisor knives, awls, toggling and unilaterally barbed harpoons, and minor items such as snowshoe netting needles, beads, and pottery decorators. Recent discoveries in north-central Manitoba now suggest that an elaborate bone technology once existed in Middle Shield culture (David Riddle, Historic Resources Branch of the Department of Culture, Heritage and Citizenship, Manitoba: Personal communication).

Efforts to reconstruct Late Western Shield culture history have tended to over-emphasize the importance of pottery. Paradoxically, the chipped stone tool assemblage in most regions is more diagnostic and thus a more dependable cultural marker than the pottery. The foregoing statement may not apply to the Boundary Waters region between Minnesota and Ontario. It is not possible to assess this matter properly as the large collections from the Boundary Waters come from the mixed deposits of burial mound excavations and the multi-component veneer deposits of habitation sites where, atypical of most Late Western Shield sites, pottery far outnumbers stone tools.

The precisely modelled, carefully smoothed, coil constructed, conoidal based, grit-tempered, and toothed tool decorated vessels share many attributes with the Saugeen and Point Peninsula complexes of Late Great Lakes-St. Lawrence culture in the Lower Great Lakes region. Pottery decorating techniques included impressing various toothed-tools into the wet clay prior to firing or using a push-pull motion with both toothed and straight-edged tools. There are, however, differences between Late Western Shield culture pottery and that of its neighbours to the east. An exception to the foregoing are the eastern Late Western Shield sites closest to Late Great Lakes-St. Lawrence culture territory which are so influenced by the pottery styles of their neighbour that it is frequently difficult to distinguish between the two cultures on the grounds of pottery characteristics alone. In this region, in particular, the stone tool assemblage must be relied upon for accurate cultural assignment.

Late Western Shield culture subsistence practices usually must be inferred from site location as, in most instances, acid soils have destroyed all bone. The Heron Bay site on the northshore of Lake Superior is an exception (Wright 1967). Here abundant beaver and moose remains were recovered with lesser frequencies of caribou, muskrat, varying hare, and bear. Round whitefish, char, lake sturgeon, northern pike, longnose sucker, and walleye or sauger were identified among the fish remains. Preservation of bone at this site was due to acid neutralizing sodas (wood ash) from the many campfires. Faunal remains have also been reported from the Long Sault site in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Forest vegetation province of the Rainy River (Arthurs 1986). Large mammal remains were represented by moose and deer or caribou. Of interest was the presence of dog remains. Beaver dominated the small mammal category while muskrat, varying hare, porcupine, and marten are also reported. Fish were important at this site with sturgeon being most common. In the same region, other sites have produced bison remains indicating access to the Parklands a short distance to the west or possibly even bison penetration into the immediate area.

Most excavated sites represent warm weather occupations where large groups of people came together on a seasonal basis. Such sites tend to be situated along major river and lake systems and particularly at river mouths and adjacent to swift water with good fishing pools. A settlement pattern feature which only appears to apply to the southwestern portion of the Late Western Shield culture distribution is proximity to major wild rice beds. Undoubtedly innumerable small camps were scattered throughout the hinterland in order to hunt and acquire products, such as high quality stone for tool manufacture, birch bark for canoe and lodge sheathings and containers, various woods for a range of tools, berries and other plant substances for a wide range of purposes including medicine. With the exception of stone quarry sites, such small resource specific sites are extremely difficult for archaeologists to locate or identify as to purpose. Winter settlement is unknown but presumably consisted of the dispersal of small groups of families with their fall food stocks into their cold weather hunting territories.

Information on Late Western Shield culture cosmology, while locally extensive, is very uneven with respect to the culture as a whole. In the southwestern portion of their territory people participated in elaborate burial mound ceremonialism adopted via a southern intermediary, Malmo culture, from Hopewell culture even further to the south. The construction of mounds incorporating multiple secondary bundle burials and a general absence of grave offerings being placed directly with the deceased other than red ochre, reflect local values regarding appropriate burial procedures that are quite different from that of the Hopewell mortuary complex. The earth mounds themselves and certain specific traits, such as brain and longbone marrow removal, however, duplicate southern traits. Beside the burial mounds, the only other burial site which probably pertains to Late Western Shield culture is the Arrowhead Drive site on Bois Blanc Island in northern Michigan (Bettarel and Harrison 1962). Here a burial pit contained the mainly articulated remains of a number of individuals. Included among the grave offerings were a pottery vessel, a bag of implements, a modified bear mandible, and hematite cones, the last two items representing Hopewell culture traits.

Probably at least some of the enigmatic pit features constructed of cobbles that have been reported from southeastern Manitoba (Carmichael 1981) and, in particular, along the northshore of Lake Superior (Dawson 1981) are of Late Western Shield culture authorship. These structures, generally situated in isolated locations exposed to the elements, have been interpreted as cosmological features wherein individuals could obtain a guardian spirit or prophecy by fasting, contemplation, and prayer. Some of the painted rock art of the Canadian Shield may also eventually be shown to pertain the Late Western Shield culture.

Late Western Shield culture neighbours were Late Great Lakes-St. Lawrence culture to the east, Middle Palaeo-Eskimo and Late Northwest Interior culture (Taltheilei complex) to the north, Late Plains culture to the west and southwest, and a number of Upper Great Lakes and more westerly cultures such as North Bay and Malmo. Relationships with Late Great Lakes-St. Lawrence culture (the Point Peninsula and Saugeen complexes, in particular) appear to have been quite close and naturally enough more so for the more easterly bands. It is probable that the mixed pottery decorative characteristics apparent on eastern Late Western Shield sites reflect intermarriage between Late Western Shield culture and Late Great Lakes-St. Lawrence culture peoples where women would move to the band of their husband along with their pottery traditions. Certainly at Late Western Shield sites, such as Heron Bay (Wright 1967), and Late Great Lakes-St. Lawrence sites, such as Donaldson (Wright and Anderson 1963), pottery styles characteristic of both cultures have been found in direct association with one another suggesting intermarriage between some of the bands of the respective cultures. Such kinship ties would have assisted the movement of goods like native copper between the different cultures. Similarly, to the west Late Western Shield pottery and occasional Lake Superior copper items are found on Late Plains culture sites in southwestern Manitoba (Syms 1977) while Knife River chalcedony from North Dakota and, less common, Wyoming obsidian found on Late Western Shield sites would have had to pass through the hands of Late Plains culture people. Relationships to the north are tenuous. There has been a suggestion that the limited Late Western Shield presence on the Churchill River drainage in northern Manitoba (Southern Indian Lake) was due to its occupation by the Late Northwest Interior culture (Taltheilei complex) (Dickson 1980). Near where the Saskatchewan River empties into Lake Winnipeg, the recovery of a fragment of a perforated soapstone lamp or bowl (Mayer-Oakes 1970: 25) suggests some form of contact with Middle Palaeo-Eskimo culture on the Hudson Bay coast via the Nelson River. While there does appear to have been some blending of LateWestern Shield culture pottery styles and those of Malmo culture in central Minnesota (Wilford 1955) and possibly the Summers Island culture of northern Michigan (Brose 1970), the relationships appear to be of a general rather than specific nature. The stone tool technologies of both of these southern cultures, for example, are clearly unrelated to that of Late Western Shield culture. There is even less evidence of significant interaction with the North Bay culture of the Door Peninsula of northern Wisconsin (Mason 1966). At this point in time the major external relationships of Late Western Shield culture definitely appear to be with their neighbours to the east in the Lower Great Lakes and to the west in the Parklands and Grasslands of Manitoba and North Dakota.

Despite the excavation of a number of Late Western Shield culture burial mounds in Ontario and adjacent Minnesota, there is little information on human biology. Information either is not available in published form or bone preservation was so poor and archaeological contexts so confused that physical anthropological interpretations have been seriously inhibited. The only report on Late Western Shield culture human biology pertains to 39 individuals from the Smith Mound 3 and Smith Mound 4 sites in northern Minnesota (Ossenberg 1974). Even these remains were so fragmented and poorly preserved that only four of the 26 discrete skull traits used to determine population relationships could be measured, thus seriously weakening observations pertinent to the genetic make-up of the people and their biological relationship to other people. It was possible to suggest that the Blackduck complex people of the Period V Northern Algonquian culture in southern Manitoba, north-central Minnesota and adjacent Ontario were direct descendants of the local Late Western Shield population (Ibid: 37).

For most of Late Western Shield culture there appears to be no significant change in social structure from that of their Middle Shield culture ancestors of Period III. The same flexible, nuclear family units set within a loose band affiliation that encompassed relationships with adjacent bands bonded by intermarriage, is inferred to have pertained. In the southwestern region of the Late Western Shield culture distribution and, in particular, in the Rainy River region of Ontario and Minnesota, however, there appears to have been a significant social deviation from the cultural norm. The large seasonal band gathering sites along this river and adjacent areas contain prominent burial mounds. Most of the mounds were built in a number of stages. Their construction and maintenance through time would suggest a level of social organization and allocation of authority that was undoubtedly alien to most of Late Western Shield culture society. Presumably this authority was vested in powerful shaman-priests who would have directed procedures, such as skull and longbone perforation and the timing of interment ceremonies and periodic mound construction. In addition to the Rainy River area being influenced by the Hopewell culture mortuary system, the exceptionally rich wild rice and sturgeon resources of the region appear to have permitted a population density and a degree of sedentariness impossible for economically less well endowed bands to achieve. The exceptional local situation must have led to some form of social inequality as only a fraction of people were accorded mound burial. In terms of social stratification, the most parsimonious explanation for this development is that a number of families with proprietary rights to particular parcels of land, became suddenly wealthy in terms of food when the technology for the processing and storage of wild rice was developed. This, in turn, would have permitted these particular families to use the new-found food wealth to differentiate themselves from their less fortunate neighbours and to mimic the elaborate mortuary ceremonialism of the Hopewell mortuary complex to the south. Whatever the factors that gave rise to the social inequality, the fact that some social differentiation took place is apparent in both the limited number of burial mounds and their restricted distributions. The local burial mound tradition continued into Period V. There is also some tenuous evidence that the Rainy River region might have functioned as a regional trade fare locale where a number of different cultures could interact to mutual benefit.

The limitations in the evidence available on Late Western Shield culture are the same as those affecting all occupations of the Canadian Shield; severely restricted archaeological visibility except for the large warm weather base camp sites, the general absence of bone due to acid soils, the hopeless mixture of components with earlier and later occupations, and the contamination of radiocarbon samples from humic acids, forest fires, and poorly demarcated archaeological contexts. There have been special problems that arise from the exceptional geographic extent of Late Western Shield culture and the processes involved in the spread of pottery. Pottery, being a plastic medium within which numerous culturally determined acts involving manufacturing and decorative techniques become permanently locked in the fired clay, provides archaeologists with an unusually sensitive artifact for seriation and other analytical manipulations required to construct culture history. Pottery vessels also break into many pieces and are relatively indestructible and thus are archaeologically highly visible. Unfortunately pottery can also act as a simplistic 'index fossil' whereby archaeologists are inclined to make cultural and temporal pronouncements based solely upon the pottery while essentially ignoring the rest of the comparative evidence. Such a limited approach, in conjunction with some ever-present regional parochialism in archaeology, has resulted in conflicting interpretations regarding pottery relationships. Differing perceptions are apparent from eastern Ontario and Québec, from northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and from Manitoba and east-central Saskatchewan. Even attempts at broader constructs, such as the Hopewell Interaction Sphere or the concept of Middle Woodland Southern, Middle, and Northern Tiers suffer from narrowly defined regional perspectives.

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