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The Middle Prehistoric Period
(8,000-2,000 BP)

A selection of projectiles. Click to enlarge.Both a major technological innovation and a significant climate change mark this period of Alberta's history. Projectile points dating from this period are often much smaller than earlier points. They also have side-notches near their bases. This suggests they were tied to small shafts of wood. Most archaeologists believe that these smaller points, which range in size from about two to five centimeters or about one to two inches, were used on darts or small spears instead of the long, heavy spears used by Clovis and other earlier peoples. These darts would have been about twice the size of arrows and may well have been fletched with feathers or other materials to help their accuracy. The use of these darts in turn suggests that the people inhabiting Alberta at this time had mastered the use of the "atlatl" or spear-thrower. This new technology was probably learned from people living in what is now the eastern United States or was brought with them by people migrating north and westwards.

Atlatl points and counterweight. Cick to enlarge.The atlatl or spear-thrower was a length of wood, bone or horn with a hook or groove at one end to hold the end of a small spear or dart. In effect, it added additional length to the hunter's arm allowing the hunter to throw a dart with increased force and deadly effect. This would have revolutionized hunting by allowing people to hunt large animals more efficiently and from a safer distance. (See illustration left. Click to enlarge)

The second major change in this period was climatic. About 9,000 years ago the climate of western North America started becoming hotter and drier before reaching a maximum warmth and dryness about 7,000 years ago. Scientists call this the Altithermal or Hypsithermal period. These Excavations at the Fletcher site. Click for details. hot, dry conditions would have reduced the capacity of the prairies of southern Alberta to support grazing animals. As a result, sites dating from this period are more frequently found in the foothills and mountain valleys of southern Alberta or in the northern half of the province. Archaeologists call the points found in these sites Boss Hill, Bitteroot, and Mummy Cave after the places where they were first found. In Alberta, these points have been found at sites near Calgary, in the Crowsnest Pass, and in the Cypress and Porcupine Hills. A major find was also made at Boss Hill near Buffalo Lake, where the distinctive Boss Hill points were first identified.

Hammerstones. Click to enlarge.By about 5,000-4,000 BP the climate in Alberta had become less hot and dry and more like current conditions. Projectile points from sites of this period change yet again, perhaps reflecting population movements or technological adaptations. Archaeologists call these Oxbow points and they have been found at sites across the plains and parklands and as far north as Wabasca Lake and the Birch Mountains. Obviously the people who made these points were well adapted to life in many different environments and other objects found in their sites reflect their sophisticated way of life. Archaeologists have found evidence of hammerstones and boiling pits that suggest these people may have made pemmican. They also built stone circles with central cairns - often called medicine wheels today. There is even archaeological evidence that shows they had domesticated dogs and organized communal buffalo hunts using sites such as Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.

About 4,200 BP a new style of projectile point appears in southern Alberta. These are called McKean points. Other variations of this style are called Duncan and Hanna points, although some believe these were made by different groups of people. Some archaeologists believe that the arrival of the McKeanCactus Flower excavation site. Click for details.people from the south pushed the older Oxbow people north thus explaining the presence of Oxbow sites in northern Alberta. There are several important McKean sites in Alberta, including the Cactus Flower site near Medicine Hat. This site includes ten occupation levels of which seven include McKean materials. Archaeologists take this mean that the McKean people returned on a regular basis to favorite campsites. In this case the site was ideal for hunting buffalo or ambushing herds trying to cross the South Saskatchewan River.

A collection of Pelican Lake points. Click to enlarge. The last groups of people to appear in Alberta in the Middle Prehistoric period are known as the Pelican Lake and Besant cultures. Once again identified by new styles of projectile points, sites with these points first appear about 3300BP. Some archaeologists believe that the Pelican Lake culture grew out of the McKean culture, while the Besant points were made by descendants of the Oxbow people. Others see the Pelican Lake points in particular as evidence of the arrival of new people in southern Alberta. Pelican Lake points are usually found in association with large-scale buffalo kills such as those found at jump sites. In addition, to making beautiful points, the Pelican Lake people traded for shell, copper and other products and made remarkable artifacts with these products. Pelican Lake sites have been found throughout the plains and parklands regions of Alberta, as well as in the mountains and into the boreal forest. Groups using Pelican Lake points existed in Alberta up to about 2,000 BP.A besant point. Click to enlarge.

Besant points appear somewhat later and are associated with two major innovations that mark the start of what archaeologists call the Late Prehistoric Period: the development of ceramics and the use of the bow and arrow.

The Late Prehistoric Period (2,000 - 250 BP or 0 AD to 1750 AD)

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