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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

The Late Prehistoric Period
(2,000 - 250 BP or 0 AD to 1,750 AD)

Close up of pottery fragment. Click to enlarge.The first pottery fragments found at sites in Alberta have been found in association with Besant points. These distinctive projectile points are often made from flint found in the Knife River area of what is now North Dakota. Ancient pits on Knife River. Click for details. Since similar points have also been found at sites in southern Saskatchewan and North and South Dakota, many archaeologists believe that the Besant people moved into the plains of southern Alberta from the southeast. In time, pottery vessels revolutionized the cooking and storage of food and thus mark a significant change in the way of life of Alberta's early peoples. However, because very few fragments have been found at Besant sites, pottery does not seem to have been very common in Alberta at this early date. Probably the Besant people found their traditional methods of cooking and storing food satisfactory for their needs.

Illustration of a buffalo pound. Click to enlarge. Besant sites have been found as far north as Lake Athabasca and cover a period of some 700 years. Archaeologists believe that this shows Besant people were very adaptable, technological innovators. For example, Besant sites suggest that these people had developed sophisticated methods of hunting bison, including the use of buffalo pounds.

It was at about this time that the use of another great technological advance came to Alberta as well. Bows and arrows had been used in Asia for centuries, and they offered clear advantages over the atalatl. Using bows and arrows, hunters could kill large game with greater efficiency and at longer range. Once introduced into North America through the migration of people or technological borrowing, the use of bows and arrows spread rapidly. Archaeologists have been able to trace the path, or "diffusion," of this remarkable new technology with some accuracy since points for arrows are appreciably smaller and more delicate than the earlier points made for atalatl darts.

A collection of Avonlea points. Click for details.The first points clearly made for use on arrows that have been found in Alberta date from about 1,800 BP or 200 AD. These points are similar to ones first found near Avonlea, Saskatchewan, so archaeologists call the people who made them the Avonlea Culture. Some archaeologists believe these points indicate a migration of new peoples into Alberta, perhaps Athapaskan groups travelling south. Others suggest that the these Avonlea points reflect cultural change among the Pelican Lake peoples brought on by their adoption of a new hunting technology. What all agree on is that, once introduced, bows and arrows quickly replaced the use of the atlatls and darts that Alberta's early peoples had been using for nearly 6,000 years.

Avonlea points are found throughout the plains of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. In Alberta, significant finds of Avonlea material have been made as far north as the Edmonton area at the Strathcona site, across the river from Rundle Park, and as far south as the Cypress Hills. At a number of sites, including ones in the Cypress Hills, Besant and Avonlea materials of about the same age have been found in the same area. This suggests that these two groups co-existed, and many believe that these groups were the direct ancestors of many of the current First Nations living in Alberta today.

Old Woman's Buffalo Jump. Click to enlarge. Archaeologists have identified one final group of distinctive projectile points which they call the "Old Women's Complex." These points were first identified at a buffalo jump site south of Calgary between Cayley and High River. This site was originally called "Old Women's Buffalo Jump," in partial error. The correct name according to local First Nations elders is "Women's Buffalo Jump." The old part referred to the age of the site - not the women who used it! These carefully crafted and Old Women's points. Click for details. beautifully proportioned points are often found in association with the top layers of archaeological material at major jump sites. Archaeologists believe then that the makers of these points were the last people to use the communal hunting methods of the buffalo jump about 3-400 years ago. The acquisition of horses and later guns through trade with French and British fur trade companies in the late 17th century and early 18th century made the use of jumps obsolete.

Historic Period Archaeology

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