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

Late Northwest Interior Culture (Précis, Chapter 29)

It could be taken as the height of audacity to even suggest the existence of a single archaeological cultural construct for an area that extends from Alaska to Hudson Bay on the east-west axis and, on the opposite axis, from the mainland coast of the Arctic Ocean to the northerly reaches of all of the western provinces from British Columbia to Manitoba. Indeed, it has been observed that "...there is no single viable construct that encompasses all of northern Athapaskan prehistory although during the last two decades there has been major research pertinent to the ancestry of various Athapaskan groups" (Clark and Morlan 1982: 89). The foregoing observation, however, appears to have been influenced by a belief that the discipline of linguistics can approximate the time and nature of dialect divergence; a capability with which I am not as sanguine. Unlike further south, the enormous land mass of the western Subarctic has many common characteristics and, in this respect, is like the lands immediately to the north and east that are still occupied by the Inuit and northern Algonquian-speakers, respectively. Using the Mackenzie River Valley as a dividing line between east and west, the following vegetation provinces pertain: to the east, Tundra and Lichen Woodland with a corner of Boreal Forest in the southwest; and to the west, the aforementioned vegetation provinces but with a marked expansion of the Boreal Forest and even a section of the Columbia-Montane Forest in the southern reaches (McAndrews et al. 1987: Plate 4). Boundaries between the various vegetation provinces fluctuated through time. For example, in the eastern region the present transitional zone between the Lichen Woodland and Tundra would have been in the forest during the warmer climate of Period IV (Gordon 1996: 26). Physiography east of a north-south line bisecting Great Bear Lake, Great Slave Lake, and Lake Athabasca is relatively low lying Canadian Shield with innumerable lakes and rivers, exposed acid rock like granite, and glacial outwash features including numerous eskers. Immediately west of this line is dominated by the Mackenzie River drainage that passes through a series of plains. Further west in the Cordillera proper, the region is characterized by mountains, highlands, and plateaus. In the west the major rivers are the Yukon and the western tributaries of the Mackenzie River. East of the Mackenzie River Valley are numerous lakes, including very large bodies of water like Great Bear, Great Slave, and Athabasca, and portions of rivers including the Peace, Athabasca, Slave, Coppermine, Thelon, and Dubawnt. For a brief summary of Subarctic environments see Gardner (1981) and for a description of the barrengrounds see Gordon (1996: 6-10). In the western Subarctic caribou and fish were the most important food resources with some bison and deer along the southwestern margin (Gillespie 1981; Heidenreich and Wright 1987) reflecting the fact that the entire region was dominated by two major ecological regions, Arctic and Boreal, albeit each with considerable internal variability (McAndrews and Manville 1987: Plate 17). Another common characteristic of this enormous area is that it is occupied by people who speak Athapaskan languages. Archaeological evidence suggests that the ancestors of these people, particularly to the west, occupied the region for many thousands of years. This opinion is supported by the concentration of mutually incomprehensible Northern Athapaskan languages in Alaska, the Yukon and Mackenzie Valley, and northern British Columbia (Krauss and Golla 1981). East of the Mackenzie River Valley, an Athapaskan association with the archaeological record has not been identified until around 700 B.C. from whence it continues up to the present. It has only been in the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century that the traditional way of life of the people of the western Subarctic was seriously disrupted by European contacts. An excellent early account of life on the barrengrounds can be found in Hearne (1958) and the writings of other early observers. Readers can acquire a fuller appreciation of Subarctic Athapaskan culture by consulting the appropriate chapters in the Subarctic Volume 6 of the Handbook of the North American Indians (Helm 1981). Useful summaries can also be found in Jenness (1955) and McMillan (1988).

Caribou Trail
Caribou Trail

Caribou herds use the crests of eskers, such as illustrated in the photograph, thus providing hunters with some degree of predictability of caribou movements as well as opportunities for ambush despite the limited forest cover. Such esker systems are quite common in the eastern District of Mackenzie and Keewatin District.

(Reproduced from Gordon 1996: Figure 1.2)

In what is admittedly a gross generalization, the archaeology of the entire region during Period IV (1,000 B.C. to A.D. 500) has been divided into western and eastern complexes with the Mackenzie River Valley acting as an intervening and poorly understood buffer between the two. It could be that "...the western District of Mackenzie may be intergradational between the Yukon and the central District of Mackenzie (cf. Morrison 1984)" (Clark 1987: 188). The complexes are the Taye Lake complex to the west and the Taltheilei complex to the east. In this instance, the catch-all classification "complex" is used to reflect the uncertainty of the relationship between Taye Lake and Taltheilei. Taye Lake has the greatest time depth, extending well into Period III (4,000 to 1,000 B.C.) and likely earlier, while the Taltheilei complex was the product of an exceptional eastward movement of people, likely coming out of northeastern British Columbia and the adjacent Yukon Territory via the Peace River and the Liard River, both major tributaries of the Mackenzie River. This population movement extended 1,500 km east of the Mackenzie River nearly to Hudson Bay, north to the coast of the Arctic Ocean and south into the northern reaches of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Despite the exceptional geographic magnitude of the migration it has, for unknown reasons, not attracted the attention of many scholars. Perhaps as an event that took place in the barrengrounds and northern forests it has been too isolated from southern considerations and lacked the romance of the Arctic. Appearing in the barrengrounds of Keewatin District around 700 B.C. during a warming climate, the Taltheilei complex's most intensive occupation of these territories, formally occupied by Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture, appears to have occurred toward the end of Period IV (Gordon 1996).

Both the Taye Lake and Taltheilei complexes have regional facies and, while they share a number of traits, there are differences between the two. In one sense, it might have been more appropriate to regard the two complexes as cultural traditions which bifurcated from one another early in Period IV. A detailed consideration of the relationship between the two complexes is severely inhibited by the lack of archaeological information from both northern British Columbia and the Mackenzie River Valley. For the purposes of this exercise, the two complexes are used as gross archaeological constructs that have some internal coherence but whose relationship to one another as component parts of a Late Northwest Interior culture is not yet demonstrable. In a number of respects, Late Interior Northwest culture, as was the case with Late West Coast culture, can best be compared to a fabric whereby the vertical warps or local technological traditions are held together by the horizontal wefts of widely shared tool styles and other traits. The fabric of Late Northwest Interior culture, however, is even more shredded than that of the Pacific coast. Part of the problem facing archaeologists is that the technology of Late Northwest Interior culture would have been dominated by objects made from wood, bark, hide, sinew, and other perishable objects (see Rogers and Smith 1981). Even bone rarely survives the acid soils that characterize much of the region, especially in the Canadian Shield. Many of the tool categories traditionally used to reconstruct culture history, such as microblades and notched points, have what can only be called a whimsical distribution in both time and space in northwestern North America. A recent approach that holds promise for clarifying aspects of the culture history is the detailed study of stone reduction processes to produce expedient flake tools and tool blanks. These studies include consideration of such attributes as the varieties of platform preparation and angles of flake detachment (Gotthardt 1990; LeBlanc 1984). In truth, the simple stone flake was undoubtedly the most important implement in the Northwest Interior culture tool kit. Stone core forms and methods of flake detachment would have been deeply engrained culturally learned behaviour and may well, in the long run, prove to be more informative than the finished tools that archaeologists have relied upon to reconstruct culture history. Innovative methods of analyses are certainly required if the situation whereby "...seldom have so many looked so hard to find so little" (Workman 1983: 87) is to be remedied.

The Taye Lake complex is often assigned to the Northern Archaic, a cultural construct that is being increasingly rejected or qualified as its hypothetical underpinnings cannot accommodate the evidence (Clark 1992: 79; Morrison 1987; Wright 1995: 386). Assigned to the Taye Lake complex in this work are the Old Chief Creek phase of the northern Yukon and the Taye Lake phase of the southern Yukon. This is not an original proposal (Greer and LeBlanc 1983: 33). The Old Chief Creek phase is believed to lead to Kutchin Athapascans and the Taye Lake phase of the southwestern Yukon to relate to the Tutchone Athapaskans. Dated between 1,000 B.C. and A.D. 700, the closest relationship of the Old Chief Creek phase is seen to be with the Taye Lake phase (LeBlanc 1984: 437). Shared traits are lanceolate points, large biface knives, scraper forms, chithos, rare wedges and cobble spalls, and an absence of microblades. Flake burins, present in the south, however, are absent in the north. Similarly, the Callison site in northern British Columbia is equated with the Taye Lake complex (MacNeish 1960: 1; Workman 1978: 417) along with the MacKenzie complex of Fishermans Lake in the southwestern Northwest Territories (Millar 1968). Shared traits are lanceolate points, flake burins, and scraper forms including notched varieties.

Although the term 'Taltheilei' was introduced by MacNeish (1951), the complex was first defined by Noble (1971; 1981) on the basis of a series of assemblages recovered from elevated strandlines at the east end of Great Slave Lake. Noble's Taltheilei Shale tradition was composed of a number of early to late phases that terminated with the historically documented Yellowknife Athapaskans although the Chipewyan and Dogrib Indians and possibly other groups were undoubtedly involved in the same complex. For Period IV this sequence of phases included Hennessey to Taltheilei to Windy Point. Paradoxically, due in large part to the funnelling effect of caribou migration routes and repetitively used river-lake crossings on human settlement, sites in the barrengrounds have tended to produce larger numbers of implements than their western contemporaries. Large stratified sites are not uncommon and, thus, in many respects, the nature of Taltheilei complex technology is better known (e.g. Gordon 1996) than that of the Taye Lake complex.

Caribou were of critical importance to Late Northwest Interior culture, not only for meat but also for hides, sinew, bone, and antler. While fish were of great importance, particularly in the fall and early winter as winter storage food, dog food, and a resource of last resort, without the caribou there would have been no people. The same comment could be made relative to fish as it was the combination of caribou and fish that were essential to survival. Other foods were, for the most part, supplementary to these two primary foods. Winter food was particularly important in a land of short summers with 24 hours of daylight and winters with 6 daylight hours and frequent food shortages. Caribou even appear to have influenced human birth in the east where "...four out of five births in February, March and April in the winter-range forest - nine months after massed herds were intercepted at tundra water crossings, nine months after nutritionally fit caribou provided adequate fat to allow Dene women to conceive" (Gordon 1996: iii). East of a line cutting through Great Bear and Great Slave lakes and Lake Athabasca are a number of discrete herds of barrenground caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus) while to the west and south of this range woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) prevail except in the northern Yukon and adjacent Alaska where another barrenground or tundra subspecies is represented (Rangifer tarandus granti) (Banfield 1961: Figures 5 and 6). The major herds making up the eastern barrenground caribou have specific calving areas to the north of their wintering ranges and definite migration routes between the two and thus there is a correlation between traditional caribou river and lake crossings and past human occupations. As a general observation it can be stated that the majority of site locations are either directly related to caribou or fish or both, albeit with seasonal emphases. High mobility during the warm weather and more sedentary settlement during the winter would have characterized the settlement patterns of all of the region under consideration.

There is very little archaeological evidence that can be related to either cosmology or human biology. Early historically documented treatment of the deceased usually involved surface burial whereby little can be expected to survive. European observers who commented on the apparent absence of religious ceremony among various northern Athapascan people undoubtedly did not appreciate the importance of personal power, spirit helpers, and the complex and all important relationship between humans and animals. Nor would they have been aware of the importance of dreams to influence behaviour. Shamans, people with exceptional powers who could act as emissaries between individuals and the supernatural world, represented one of the few instances where assistance, beyond personal power and adherence to taboos, could be sought.

Relationships with their neighbours at the time of European contact involved hostilities with the Inuit to the north and the Cree to the southeast. In Period IV, cultural distributions were the same in the western region as during Period V but to the east a major cultural replacement took place. When the Taltheilei complex spread eastward throughout the enormous territory it would eventually occupy it replaced Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture. It is not yet clear whether this replacement involving filling a void left by contracting Palaeo-Eskimos or if the latter were pushed-out. The time gap between the latest Palaeo-Eskimos in the barrengrounds and the appearance of the earliest Taltheilei complex hunters is narrow. As is clearly demonstrated by the archaeological record, both cultures occupied the same sites and for the same reasons - caribou. There are no compelling reasons, such as climate change, to explain why the Palaeo-Eskimos would be inclined to voluntarily abandon rich hunting territories that they had been exploiting since 1,500 B.C. Caribou had not altered their habits as indicated by the fact that all cultures on the barrengrounds, from earliest to latest times, occupied the same sites. It is speculated that east of the Mackenzie River Valley much of the territories occupied by the Taltheilei complex involved the displacement of what were likely seasonally resident Palaeo-Eskimos. Similarly, Early Palaeo-Eskimos disappeared from the northern regions of Alaska, the Yukon, and the northwestern area of the District of Mackenzie. Direct evidence of hostilities can rarely be recognized in the archaeological record and given the kind of relatively small, hit-and-run warfare documented by Europeans for the region, little such evidence could be expected. What is clear from the archaeological record (e.g. Gordon 1996: Figure 8.1 versus Figure 5.1; McGhee 1987: Plate 11) is that Late Northwest Interior culture, as represented by the Taltheilei complex in the east and presumably the Taye Lake complex and/or related complexes in the west, replaced Palaeo-Eskimo culture throughout much of its former range in the northern reaches of the western Subarctic and adjacent barrengrounds.

Late Northwest Interior culture societies, like that of their descendants in Period V, would have been composed of a number of families grouped into regional bands and, of secondary importance, band groupings that constituted a loose tribal structure. Within these egalitarian societies considerable flexibility of individual choice would have existed. The importance of the highly mobile, small family unit is clearly evident from the generally meagre archaeological remains. Polygamy was wide spread at the time of European contact although few men could have afforded to support more than one wife. The nature of the archaeological record is such that it is likely impossible to determine how old or prevalent this practice was.

Volume IVolume II

Back Menu - A History of the Native People of Canada Continue