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Archaeological Traditions

Palaeo-Indian Tradition

The northern Agate Basin complex is an expression of an archaeological entity which is best known for the grasslands of the great plains where it occurs from Texas north to the Canadian parklands (Wormington 1957:141, Ebell 1980:63). A distinguishing characteristic of the Agate Basin complex is a lanceolate (willow leaf shape) projectile point which is not notched on the lower edges.

On the grasslands these peoples were bison hunters and their culture dates from about 10,000 to 8,000 years ago (Ebell 1980:73). Some of the Agate Basin peoples apparently found their way north of the grasslands, into the boreal and transitional forests, and discovered the barren-ground caribou. It is thought that these peoples simply transferred their hunting techniques used for one herd animal (bison) to another herd animal (caribou). The northern Agate Basin is a late expression of this complex as, in Mackenzie and Keewatin, it is dated between 7,000 and 8,000 years ago (Gordon 1976: 47).

Agate Basin remains in far northern Saskatchewan are very sparse, compared to the remains to the north in the Northwest Territories. Agate Basin points have been found at two locations on Lake Athabasca, one site on Black Lake and at another location on Hara Lake, north of Wollaston Lake. It appears, therefore, that these peoples came south into Saskatchewan infrequently. If this is so, it may be deduced that the winter range of the caribou at this time did not regularly extend into northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Gordon (1976:3135) has summarized information on the past climates of this region and noted that the period 10,000 to 7,000 years ago was mild, evidently warmer than at present. The treeline was farther north than at present and, therefore, the whole caribou range would have been more northerly than at present. Assuming that the Agate Basin peoples followed the caribou as closely as the historic peoples, it would then be expected that Agate Basin peoples would not regularly have travelled into what is now northern Saskatchewan.

Shield Archaic Tradition

Throughout interior North America the Palaeo-Indian tradition was succeeded by archaeological complexes characterized by the use of side-notched projectile points. In the barren-ground caribou region this succession occurred by 7,000 years ago, and here the assemblages are referred to as part of the Shield Archaic tradition (Wright 1972:33-38). Wright (1972:85) has hypothesized that the Shield Archaic took form in this region as a result of internal technological development, with the introduction of new tool styles, and not as a result of the immigration of peoples from elsewhere.

To date, Shield Archaic materials have not been identified, with certainty, in northern Saskatchewan. This may simply be due to chance and a general paucity of archaeological research; however, it should be noted that between 7,000 and 5,000 years ago the climate became increasingly warm and moist (Gordon 1976: 35). At this time the treeline advanced north to its maximum known limit. It may be expected, therefore, that the barren ground caribou range was shifted even farther to the north and that the herds did not normally winter as far south as Saskatchewan.

It is possible that at this time northern Saskatchewan, between the Churchill River and Lakes Athabasca and Wollaston, was occupied by peoples who were culturally related to the occupants of the northern plains. Excavation at the Near Norbert site, on the Haultain River (Meyer et al. 1980), has revealed the presence of an occupation by peoples who used side-notched projectile points similar to those used on the Saskatchewan parklands about 5,000 years ago (Wettlaufer and Mayer-Oakes 1960:55-71). In the summer of 1981 this writer investigated a similar site at the mouth of the Umpherville River, on Wollaston Lake.

The Shield Archaic peoples continued to hunt the barren-ground caribou until about 3,500 years ago. At this time the climate deteriorated in the Arctic and Subarctic and the treeline retreated south. This climatic change saw the movement of a new human population into the barren-ground caribou region.

Arctic Small Tool Tradition

With the cooling of the climate some 3,500 years ago it is likely that the whole region through which the caribou migrated shifted to the south. At this time the winter range of the caribou must have expanded southward, well into Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Following this climatic change, peoples with an Eskimo-type culture moved south out of the Arctic and displaced the Shield Archaic (Indian) peoples on the barren-ground caribou range. These Eskimos are thought to have moved out of the Arctic because of the increasing severity of weather conditions there.

The archaeological remains left by these early Eskimos are referred to as the Pre-Dorset complex of the Arctic Small Tool tradition. The tools of these early Eskimos are delicate and miniaturized, carefully knapped from fine cherts and quartzites. Pre-Dorset artifacts have been found at a number of locations on Black Lake (Minni 1976: 51-53) and Lake Athabasca (Wright 1975:139), evidence that these early Eskimos followed the herds south into this region during the winter. Indeed, considering the severity of the climate at this time it is possible that Pre-Dorset remains will be found to be relatively common in far northern Saskatchewan and that they will be found well to the south of Black Lake and Lake Athabasca. (Note: this prediction has been proven valid. See A Trip to Reindeer Lake.)

Taltheilei Tradition

With the amelioration of climate about 2,600 years ago, Indian peoples once again moved into this region and began hunting the caribou. At this time the Taltheilei tradition was established, which lasted through to the inception of the historic period. This tradition is believed to have been introduced by Athapaskans (Dene-speaking peoples), who continue to occupy this region.

Gordon (1976: 273) has divided the Taltheilei tradition into an early, middle and late period. The early period dates between 2,700 and 2,100 years ago and is characterized by the presence of stemmed projectile points. Middle period dates fall between 2,100 and 1,500 years ago and at this time stemmed projectile points became fewer and lanceolate specimens dominate. In the late period, beginning at least 1,200 years ago, side-notched and corner-notched styles are introduced to continue through to the time of European contact. The late period remains are attributed to the direct ancestors of the historically known Chipewyans of this region.

The Taltheilei tradition is well represented in sites throughout northern Saskatchewan north of the Churchill River. Minni found that components of this tradition were the most common of any represented on Black Lake.

Other Archaeological Representation

The archaeological entities discussed above represent the major prehistoric occupations of far northern Saskatchewan; however, other peoples sometimes moved in from adjacent regions. The presence of Pelican Lake projectile points on Black Lake and Lake Athabasca is particularly striking. The Pelican Lake complex was a grasslands culture, the subsistence economy of which was based on bison hunting. This complex dates to about 3,000 to 2,000 years ago (Wettlaufer and Mayer-Oakes 1960:43-47).

Clearwater Lake complex materials, dating to the late prehistoric period, also have been found on Black Lake (Minni 1976:57-58). This complex is abundantly represented on the Churchill, Sturgeon-Weir and Reindeer River systems (Meyer 1978). It also is common on the southern portion of Reindeer Lake. The hallmarks of the Clearwater Lake complex are earthenware vessels, which are decorated with a row of punctates around the neck, and small triangular and side-notched arrow heads. The peoples who produced this complex are believed to have been northern Algonkian-speakers, the direct ancestors of the contemporary Crees of this region. It appears that these people sometimes ranged as far north as the Fond du Lac River system. It is likely that these were residents of the Reindeer Lake area who occasionally moved north into the Wollaston Lake region and along the Fond du Lac River in the summer. At this time the local Chipewyans would have been far to the north, on the barren grounds.

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