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

Late Plains Culture (Précis, Chapter 26)

Late Plains culture, composed of the chronologically sequential Pelican Lake and Besant complexes, occupied a core area consisting of Alberta and Saskatchewan south of the North Saskatchewan River, southern Manitoba, most of Montana and North Dakota, and portions of adjacent Wyoming, South Dakota and Ontario. Departing from the current practice on the Plains, where the Pelican Lake complex and sometimes the Besant complex are placed in a 'Middle Period', the two complexes are assigned to Late Plains culture. Period V from A.D. 500 to European contact is generally referred to as Late Plains, for example, but in this work becomes simply Plains culture. Such nomenclature changes can cause understandable confusion but are unavoidable given the national scope of the present work. The Pelican Lake complex is more widely distributed than the Besant complex but as this distribution is mainly based on a loosely defined projectile point variety what the distribution actually means in cultural terms is a problem. A more restricted distribution of the Besant complex centres on the southern Prairie provinces and adjacent Montana and North Dakota (Walde et al. 1995: Figure 2). Vegetation provinces occupied by Late Plains culture were mainly the Grassland and the Parkland but, in the case of the Pelican Lake complex, also included marginal portions of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence and Boreal Forest to the east and the Columbia-Montane Forest to the west (McAndrews et al. 1987: Plate 4).

Late Plains Culture Fall Camp Scene - Vidéoanthrop Inc.; CMC I-A-44, S95-23507
A Late Plains Culture Fall Camp Scene

Following the successful entrapment and killing of a herd of bison cows and their calves at a pound or jump site at the foot of the hill in the background, men help the women butcher and dry the meat before spoilage sets in. Water in the bison paunch container in the foreground will be heated with hot rocks in order to render fat for pemmican production from broken bones along with the marrow being extracted by the elderly woman. The attentive dog with an injured foot has been tethered to a tipi by its owner to keep it away from the kill site where there would be danger of further injury from the other dogs gorging themselves on the remains of the hunt. A young boy in the upper right chases a thieving magpie away from the drying meat. The scene is set in the Parklands in the fall when the need to amass winter stores would have been critical and the bison in prime condition.

(Painting produced by Vidéoanthrop Inc., Montréal, under contract with the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The painting was done by M. François Girard using sketches and technical information compiled by M. Marc Laberge and the author.)

As was the case with the cultural origins and descendants of Middle Plains culture in Period III, a controversy exists relative to the origin(s) of Late Plains culture. A commonly held view holds that two archaeological traditions, called Napikwan and Tunaxa, gave rise to different cultures who co-inhabited the Northern Plains (Reeves 1970; 1983). A modification on the foregoing would have the Pelican Lake complex replace the McKean complex (Hanna) of Period III and share the Plains with the Besant complex in Period IV only to be eventually replaced itself (Dyck and Morlan: In press). The scenario favoured here, like the one applied to Middle Plains culture, is that a single cultural tradition and not two different traditions was involved. This, in part, is suggested by the stratigraphic record and the evidence from single components where late Pelican Lake projectile points are found in direct association with early Besant style points (e.g. Dyck and Morlan 1995; Van Dyke and Head 1983). It has been recently observed that "...we are beginning to question even more strongly the idea that an archaeological complex, much less the looser series grouping, can be defined by a single point type" (Dyck and Morlan 1995: 405). Other aspects of Late Plains culture systems, such as subsistence and settlement patterns, also exhibit clear continuities between the Pelican Lake and Besant complexes. Such evidence favours the likelihood of a single developing cultural tradition. Arguments for the contemporaneity of the Pelican Lake and Besant complexes, exclusive of the transition of the former into the latter, are seen as a product of the time ranges inherent in the radiocarbon method compounded by instances of poor sample context and contamination (Morlan 1988; Morlan et al. 1996). In the scheme favoured here, the Pelican Lake complex is equated with the first part of Late Plains culture with the Besant complex developing directly out of the former. Similarly, the Avonlea complex of Period V is considered a development out of Late Plains culture (Besant). In this respect, Late Plains culture is regarded as an in place development of a single cultural tradition with its ancestry rooted in the Middle Plains culture of Period III and its descendants represented by the Plains culture of Period V. Numerous stratified sites, such as Walter Felt (Kehoe 1974), Long Creek (Wettlaufer and Mayer-Oakes 1960), Old Women's Buffalo Jump (Forbis 1962), Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (Reeves 1978; 1983), Garratt (Morgan 1979), and Sjovold (Dyck and Morlan 1995), suggest a cultural sequence involving a single tradition. It is important to note, however, that what is here referred to as Late Plains culture, like all of the other cultural constructs proposed in these volumes, would have been composed of numerous independent bands whose relationship to one another would have been increasingly attenuated with distance.

Bison was the single most important food animal of Late Plains culture peoples, as it was throughout the 12,000 years of Plains pre-European history. There were, however, significant seasonal and regional variations in the subsistence pattern. Adaptive flexibility is not only a prerequisite for hunters but is particularly so when a number of different vegetation provinces were occupied. These included Grassland, Parkland, the Foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the margins of the Boreal Forest and, at the beginning of Period IV, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Forest. Such vegetation provinces, characterized by distinctive plant assemblages, were not in a static relationship to one another. For example, cooler and wetter summers similar to today allowed the forests to encroach on the parklands and grasslands, a process that only stabilized around 650 B.C. Pronghorn, white-tailed and mule deer, elk, sheep, mountain goat, beaver, small game, fish, and roots and berries would vary in importance relative to both vegetation province and season. Meat would have accounted for the bulk of the calories ingested by Plains people but humans are unable to effectively metabolize Vitamin C from meat. Vitamin C or ascorbic acid is an essential element of nutrition that could only be provided in significant quantities by plants. Various dried berries or tubers like bitterroot and wild parsley were likely the major sources of this essential vitamin (Aaberg 1983). Throughout Period IV evidence in the form of boiling pits, hearths, mounds of fire fractured rock, and bone mash indicate the increasing importance of pemmican (Reeves 1990). Pemmican was produced by pounding dried bison meat, mixing it with fat rendered from bones and marrow, and packing it into large bison bladder sacks. Although the production of pemmican was a labour intensive activity, it did provide a preserved food supply for winter sustenance as well as a hedge against hunting failures. It would also have served as dog food and dogs were the draft animals which permitted mobility, an essential aspect of survival on the Plains.

Projectile point types have been used as the major device to reconstruct Northern Plains culture history and, in this regard, have been both a blessing and a curse. All 'types', whether pertaining to projectile points, pottery vessels, or other artifact categories, are abstractions subject to the limitations inherent in both the classifications and the precision of the classifiers and, as such, possess elements of both compartmental simplicity and personal subjectivity. As a result, there is often a lack of agreement with one persons' Pelican Lake point being anothers' Besant point; particularly as point style trends are generally continuous and grade into one another. Since much of archaeological interpretation is based upon surface collected materials or is excavated from sites with mixed cultural deposits, types can play an important role as culture and time indicators. The uncritical use of typology and unsystematic classifications, however, are capable of producing cultural reconstructions that have little basis in fact. While most archaeologists recognize the dangers inherent in basing cultures upon point types such cultures still characterize much of Plains culture history. The situation has been further exacerbated by a tendency to rely upon projectile point types alone for site placement in time and cultural assignment. Such a procedure often ignores or minimizes the remainder of the technology and the other systems of the culture under consideration like settlement patterns and cosmology. The Pelican Lake complex, for example, is largely based upon a wide range of corner-notched projectile points; a weak crutch to rest either a culture or a complex upon. Projectile points are undoubtedly the most important single artifact category within Late Plains culture but it is held that they should still be viewed as only one element in a tool kit that itself is only part of an archaeologically defined culture. Projectile point style trends during Period IV involve a wide range of corner-notched dartheads early in the sequence which develop into broad side-notched forms. Although it is a matter of debate, it is suggested here that the adoption of the bow and arrow weapon system took place during Period IV. Likely adopted from Late Western Shield culture people to the east or their immediate ancestors, the bow is estimated to have appeared on the Plains around 500 B.C. With the exception of projectile points, stylistically diagnostic tools are rare, such as the notched biface and uniface knife forms in the Pelican Lake complex (Davis 1975) and the preference at the same time for dorsally retouched end scrapers. A continuity of the tool kit assemblage in Late Plains culture and the scarcity of significant differences between the Pelican Lake and Besant complexes supports the view of a single developing technological tradition.

The earliest evidence of the bow and arrow on the Plains indicates that it was used along with the spearthrower weapon system. Many of the arrow points were manufactured from the distinctive Knife River chert of North Dakota. An initial appearance of the bow and arrow involving arrowheads manufactured from a specific type of stone was a pattern repeated further east with Late Great Lakes-St. Lawrence culture (Onondaga chert) and Late Western Shield culture (Hudson Bay Lowlands nodular chert) and even occurred west of the Plains in the Canadian Plateau and the southern coast of British Columbia (vitreous basalt). It is estimated that the bow and arrow was first introduced to the Plains around 500 B.C. Some archaeologists would argue for a much earlier appearance of around 2,000 B.C. (Dyck and Morlan 1995: Tables 3.5 and 26.1). The problem is that distinguishing arrowheads from dartheads is not a simple matter. While metrical evidence can be used to demonstrate the impossibility of hafting certain points to a wooden arrowshaft, certain small and thin points could have been used as either darts or arrows. Metrical evidence has not been solely relied upon to identify the presence of the bow but rather a series of associated phenomenon. These include the frequent initial association of arrowheads with a distinctive stone type, the abrupt change in projectile point metrical characteristics that permitted hafting of stone points in wooden arrowshafts, a rather lengthy period of association between dartheads and arrowheads, and the timing of these events relative to the east to west cline of the inferred diffusion route of the bow and arrow. It has been necessary to discuss projectile point typology as well as the introduction of the bow and arrow since, more than anywhere else in Canada, projectile point styles have been used to establish the culture history. Archaeological reconstructions of Plains pre-European history are therefore subject to both the strengths and the limitations of projectile point stylistic trends and their relevance to what actually took place in the past.

The adaptability of Late Plains culture subsistence is reflected in the Pelican Lake complex occupation of the Long Sault site on the Rainy River in Ontario where moose, beaver, sturgeon, pickerel, and suckers represented the major food remains (Arthurs 1986). Harpooning large sturgeon from a bark canoe hardly fits the image of a Plains culture hunter but adaptability was the basis of survival for all hunting people and simple subsistence stereotypes rarely stand up to close scrutiny. The extent of seasonal mobility of hunting bands is also a difficult issue for archaeology to address. For example, the Pelican Lake people who occupied the Rainy River could have been mainly bison hunters who made seasonal forays eastward to harvest the oil-rich sturgeon and other resources as well as to trade. Given the proximity of the grasslands and parklands and the mobility and portability provided by watercraft, an eastward exploitation range of Late Plains culture into Ontario is not surprising, particularly given a long history of exploiting similar resource areas in adjacent southeastern Manitoba (Buchner 1979; 1982; 1982a). Identification of the Pelican Lake complex at the Long Sault site is based on the similarity of the tool kit to Pelican Lake complex sites in adjacent southeastern Manitoba (Buchner 1979: 42-45) and its dissimilarity to the late Middle Shield culture tool kit (Wright 1972; 1995), as well as other lines of evidence. Despite the foregoing qualification, there can be no denying that the increasing importance of communal bison hunting techniques is the single most striking characteristic of Late Plains culture. The increase in mass bison kills, beginning with the Pelican Lake complex, has been attributed to an increase in bison populations (Dyck and Morlan: In press). The impression that Pelican Lake complex campsites are more numerous than their predecessors, however, probably reflects the weakly defined nature of the complex where almost any corner-notched projectile point qualifies for the cultural assignment. Increased archaeological visibility of mass bison kills and the destruction and burying of a more dispersed earlier archaeological record are also factors that could lead to an erroneous impression of a significant population increase at the beginning of Period IV. In this respect, the speculation that improvement in methods of communal hunting and pemmican production provided an economic base for increased social complexity and elaboration of cultural systems (Reeves 1990) would not appear to be entirely justified. There was some coalescence of people during Period IV but insufficient to suggest an early establishment of the full-blown historically documented social system of the Northern Plains. The latter included very large aggregations of people, representative of a number of bands, during the communal bison hunt. Self-discipline in the name of the common good was essential during the complex process of manoeuvring bison herds into entrapment situations. Policing of individual behaviour therefore became essential. Other historically documented social systems were the existence of status differences in the form of personal wealth and polygamy. Processes leading to the historically documented pattern, however, were undoubtedly incremental rather than abrupt. Major cultural disruptions caused by the introduction of the horse, the gun, and European diseases and trade to traditional behaviour must also be considered when extrapolating from European documentation to pre-European events.

Given the extent of Late Plains culture, it is not surprising that there is an uneven distribution of certain cultural traits. For example, pottery vessels are more common on easterly sites that were closer to the eastern centres of pottery diffusion. The same situation applies to the occurrence of Besant complex burial mounds that are restricted to South Dakota and North Dakota. Variability in the lands occupied by Late Plains culture also assured that the settlement patterns were equally variable. While stereotype settlements are represented by sites like Head-Smashed-In (Reeves 1978) or Old Women's (Forbis 1962) buffalo jumps such sites are actually rare. Nearly as archaeologically visible as the foregoing impressive 'jump' sites are other communal 'kill' sites where numbers of bison were dispatched in pounds, surrounds, and in natural entrapment features such as kettles and river and lake margins. The generally excellent bone preservation on the Plains insures that such sites, with their masses of bison bone, are readily recognizable. Not nearly so apparent are the buried tent rings and small campsites that would have been involved in a host of activities such as lodge pole gathering, and berry and root harvesting. Stone tent rings are certainly the most common dwelling evidence. By 1,000 B.C. large winter camps with different sized tipi ring are present. Some specialized sites could attain exceptional dimensions and possess substantial time depth. The Schmitt quarry and associated camp site in Montana (Davis 1987; Leslie B. Davis, Montana State University: Personal communication and examination), for example, covered more than 100 hectares and was occupied intermittently for 1,000 years.

Another characteristic of Late Plains culture is the relatively high frequency of exotic items. Early in Period IV, Wyoming obsidian and Montana cherts are common, particularly on the more westerly sites. Knife River Flint from North Dakota is particularly frequent in the Besant complex. Other exotic materials are represented by Olivella and Dentalium shell beads from the Pacific Coast and even one incidence of a British Columbia Fraser Canyon jadeite adze. The rare native copper items have been attributed to the Lake Superior region.

Relatively little is known of Late Plains culture cosmology. There is evidence at the rock art site of Writing-On-Stone in southern Alberta that these people were the first to use the site as a sacred place where a shaman or an individual with spiritual power could solicit supernatural powers (Brink 1978). There is also evidence of Late Plains culture participation in the medicine wheel ceremonialism which began in Middle Plains culture times (Calder 1977). An aspect of Late Plains culture cosmology, the significance of which for the culture as a whole has been overemphasized, was the appearance of burial mound ceremonialism in South Dakota and North Dakota (Neuman 1975). Even though the influences responsible for the burial mounds stemmed from Hopewell culture to the east many of the mound features were of local origin. Burial mounds were not adopted by the majority of Late Plains culture people and the features are best viewed as a restricted middle Missouri River drainage phenomena. Further to the west and north into southern Alberta and Saskatchewan two burial pits containing multiple bundle burials were provided with red ochre and a rich assortment of offerings. The offerings included exotic items such as marine shell beads and native copper. In one instance, a grave was covered by a cobble cairn (Brink and Baldwin 1988; Walker 1982). Both of the foregoing burials pertain to the early portion of Late Plains culture and suggest corpse exposure on scaffolds preceded interment. Indeed, the scarcity of burials and their absence from the later portion of Late Plains culture, with the exception of the eastern burial mounds, indicate that the historically documented practices of leaving bodies on scaffolds, in abandoned tipis, or otherwise exposed to the elements, was already the common manner of treating the remains of the deceased.

There has been an excessive emphasis on the impact of Hopewell culture on the late portion of Late Plains culture. According to the hypothesis of an occupation of the Northern Plains by two contemporaneous but different cultures, the Besant complex expanded into the Plains from the east at the expense of the local Pelican Lake complex. The explanation for this westward spread was the Besant complex's participation in the Hopewellian Interaction Sphere and the need to assert economic control over certain valuable resources such as the Yellowstone obsidian in Wyoming, Knife River Flint in North Dakota, and bison products (Reeves 1970: 173). Economic driven imperialism is an inappropriate device for explaining relationships between hunting societies. There is only limited evidence of an exchange network with the Hopewell communities to the east. On the contrary, there is more evidence of Late Plains culture trade involvement with the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific coast than with what is now the midwestern United States. Plains items that do occur in the midwest, such as obsidian and Knife River Flint, simply reflect a continuation of trading patterns that were already well established in Period III. Of course, probable eastward trade in perishables such as bison robes and shields is impossible to demonstrate. Regardless of the equivocal nature of the evidence, it is still generally accepted by Plains archaeologists that the Besant complex resulted from the fusion of the preceding Pelican Lake complex and eastern Woodland influences (Dyck 1983; Kehoe and Kehoe 1968; Reeves 1983).

A poorly understood relationship existed between Late Plains culture and the Late Western Shield culture (Laurel) of the Canadian Shield and environs. Pelican Lake complex people, generally referred to as the Larter complex or phase in Manitoba, once occupied large portions of southwestern Northern Ontario, southeastern Manitoba and northern Minnesota but abandoned the region due to a climatically induced westward retreat of the Grassland with its associated bison herds. The abandoned territory was eventually reoccupied by westward expanding Late Western Shield culture people who would even spread as far west as the Parklands. As both cultures occupied the same sites in southeastern Manitoba, the expansion into this region suggests there was probably some push involved rather than being simply a matter of one group occupying the abandoned territory of another. Late Western Shield culture bands of the Rainy River region possessed a relatively complex social organization and in this respect differed from the simple band level organization typical of their kinsmen to the east, north, and northwest. The enhanced social complexity and greater population densities of the Rainy River region appears to have been based upon the harvesting and storage of wild rice. As southeastern Manitoba was rich in wild rice beds this fact could have been an important incentive for forest dwellers to push further west.

Knife River Flint from North Dakota, also called chalcedony or chert, is commonly reported from Late Western Shield culture sites in the Rainy River region and Late Plains culture artifacts, such as projectile points and probably pottery (Kenyon 1971), are also present. What Late Plains culture people received in return is not particularly evident in the archaeological record and may have involved perishable substances such as parched wild rice and furs. Certainly the minor amounts of copper would have been of eastern origin. Late Western Shield (Laurel) culture pottery has been identified on Late Plains culture sites (Klimko 1985; MacNeish and Capes 1958; Meyer 1983) but the plain bossed and coil constructed vessels involved are here regarded as a local Late Plains culture pottery style.

On the western flank of the Northern Plains there is no clear evidence of a Late Plains culture relationship with Late Plateau culture people of the Canadian Plateau nor into the Foothills of the Rocky Mountains north of the headwaters of the Athabasca River. Obsidian from the interior of British Columbia is present, as are occasional artifacts characteristic of Plateau cultures, but generally such items are not recovered from datable contexts. Some form of relationship must have existed as indicated by the presence of marine shell beads from the Pacific coast on Late Plains culture sites but the extent of the trade is poorly known.

Evidence pertaining to human biology is limited to the burial mounds of South Dakota and North Dakota (Bass and Phenice 1975) and from the single burial features from Saskatchewan and Alberta (Brink and Baldwin 1988; Walker 1982). This evidence suggests Late Plains culture people were relatively tall with well developed musculature but suffered from such ailments as arthritis, periostitis, mastoiditis and even possible instances of tertiary and cardiovascular syphilis. Dental health was generally excellent until after 30 years of age when excessive tooth wear resulted in periodontal disease and abscesses with subsequent tooth loss. Since inhumation was a waning cultural practice early in Late Plains culture history the evidence required to understand genetically determined population relationships and pathology is likely to remain limited.

Using archaeological evidence to draw inferences on society is always a risky procedure, fraught with the dangers of creating undemonstrable scenarios. As all aspects of life, then and now, possess an element of probability, however, speculation concerning the most likely ways that past societies organized themselves is a valid area of archaeological inquiry. During Late Plains culture times, cultural elements that had appeared in the preceding Period III, such as communal bison hunting and pemmican production, were elaborated and would eventually form the foundation of the cultural systems recorded by Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries of our era. The ascendency of the bow and arrow over the spearthrower represents a technological trend that had potential consequences for the practice of warfare and thus social relations. During Period IV, the systems associated with an increasing reliance on communal bison hunting were already well in place. These included the possible formation of multi-band or tribal gatherings of large numbers of people, as well as dogs, that would have required some form of policing during critical periods during the hunt. Expanded pemmican production would also have provided the economic foundation for increasing social complexity including possible personal status and wealth differentiation.

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