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Canada before the Age of European Exploration

Canada before the Age of European Exploration

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Canada’s location in the northern reaches of the American continent meant that it was destined to be a paradoxical place. Its climate and geological landforms suggested that it would present great challenges to the people who tried to inhabit it and wrest a living from its lands and waters.

Northern North America, rather than being a vacuum for energetic Europeans to explore and settle, was a vast landscape inhabited by a flourishing mixture of Native peoples who had fashioned a way of life over the centuries that was in tune with the environment and, as far as we can determine, was part of a complicated system of relationships between neighbouring and often competing tribal groups. For Native peoples, Canada had been an austere yet often bounteous home for countless generations.

In order to come to grips with precontact North America, historians must be particularly creative in seeking a variety of sources. In order to understand Native peoples before early contact years with the Europeans, we cannot rely exclusively on the most common historical source: written documents. Instead we should make imaginative use of archaeological material, as well as the contributions of anthropologists and ethnographers. Moreover, the written record of the contact period was almost exclusively the product of European males, who inevitably defined and remembered events that fit their principles and ideals. We are left with the documents, maps, and visual portraits of what they saw and how they reacted to life in the New World. Therefore, the task of determining what the lives of Native peoples were like before and during contact is a particularly challenging one. And while some conclusions about Amerindians will probably remain forever ill defined and debatable, a combination of oral testimony, Native traditions, and carefully interpreted records of European-based peoples give us a clearer insight to life in Canada hundreds of years ago.

Like human beings everywhere, all Canadian Natives descend from people who were once full-time hunter-gatherers. Even those who eventually adopted more intensive subsistence strategies often retained hunting and gathering practices as regular supplements and insurance against occasional shortages. Thus hunting and gathering pervades the history of American Indian societies, providing the context for their initial expansion and subsequent differentiation.

There can no longer be any doubt that Canada was initially populated by hunter-gatherers expanding eastward into what is now Alaska and its portion of the submerged continental shelf. Prior to the end of the Pleistocene, glacial ice locked up so much of the earth's water that sea levels were generally much lower, exposing vast areas of continental shelf. These areas were covered by vegetation and inhabited by game animals. The modern Bering Strait was high and dry, and Asia was linked to North America by a broad isthmus, 1,000 kilometres wide. To Ice Age hunters it would not have been a land bridge at all, but a continuation of the rich hunting grounds of north-eastern Asia.

Archaeological evidence suggests that at least two great waves of migration brought Native peoples to the Americas. The most widely recognized migration came from northern Asia over the above mentioned land bridge existent in what is now the Bering Strait between 12,000 and 20,000 years ago. Although this is one of the oldest and most compelling theories, some recent DNA evidence has pointed to genetic connections between the peoples of Manchuria and Mongolia and some Native peoples in North America. As the mammoth glaciers retreated from the last ice age, these groups transmigrated within present-day Canada. By the era of European exploration and settlement, they occupied virtually all of the land mass that entails Canada today.

The second large wave occurred from 700 to 1000 A.D., when scholars believe the Inuit of the Arctic region and various peoples of the interior of British Columbia migrated. These two surges explain the great difference between the groups and linguistic patterns of Native peoples in Canada.

Inuit peoples (Eskimos) arrived in northern Canada perhaps 6,000 years ago. Approximately 1,000 years ago, a climatic warming occurred throughout the Arctic. The Thule, a whale-hunting people, took advantage of this development, traveling by umiak (a boat with a skin-covered frame and several seats for passengers and supplies) through partially thawed waters. Migrating whalers, they were equipped with sophisticated sea-hunting tools and techniques. Included were such items as detachable-head harpoons and multiple groupings of inflated sealskins used to slow harpooned whales. To the east and north, in Baffin Bay, waters were open and whale populations of the time were plentiful, encouraging exploration and the search for additional resources.

Thule villages were located along northern coastal areas of Arctic Canada. Other natural resources, such as seal and caribou, sustained the Thule where whales were not plentiful or available; near Igloolik, on a small island west of Baffin Island, walrus offered a diversified hunting option.

The Thule used bones from these animals as building materials, and their skins as roofs creating what must have been a warm, smoky atmosphere in efficient dwellings. Within a period of a few hundred years, the Thule culture had spread throughout Arctic Canada. Bands of them hived off and established themselves on other large islands. Secondary expansions took other Thule Eskimos along both sides of Baffin Island. Some entered Hudson Bay, while others advanced down the coast of Labrador. Favoured whale and seal species occurred only as far south as southern Labrador and the southern tip of Greenland, so the advancing Thule Eskimos stopped there as well.

Subsequent climatic cooling, which began around 1200 A.D., may have begun the decline of the Thule way of life. Described as direct ancestors of the modern Inuit (meaning “the people” in the Inuktitut language), it is believed that the Thule people and their way of life became the Inuit culture of recent centuries. Inuit legends narrate the Thule migration and Arctic occupation, thus extending the history of the Thule culture. Culturally, there was a sharp division between the traditional Inuit (Eskimo) and First Nations (Indian) ways of life.

Brief mention should be made of competing theories that attempt to explain the ethnically and linguistically diverse Amerindian groups of the Americas. Taking the broadest of viewpoints, historians note that Native peoples in the northern reaches of the continent were complex, linguistically varied, and culturally diverse, and tribal groupings differed dramatically in size.

While diversity characterized the Amerindian population, all peoples were clearly well adapted to the environment for survival. Hardship, deprivation, and war would certainly have been part of the lives of generations of Native peoples in the land that was to become Canada, yet scholars agree that these groups were resilient and highly adapted to the existent rigorous terrain and climate. During the past several thousand years northern peoples have lived through dramatic advances and retreats of ice sheets; they have lived at one point in an ecosystem that featured camels, mastodons, and antelopes, all of which disappeared; they have adapted to glaciers, the barrens, uncertain food supplies, life-threatening cold, and surprisingly warm periods.

The cultural diversity of Canada’s Native peoples is hard to be characterized in a brief space. Nonetheless, it is possible to make generalizations that fairly characterize the peoples whom the Europeans first encountered. As far as we know, aboriginals lived in small bands of a few families that broke up into even smaller groups when food was scarce.

The primary unit of consumption and production was the local band, five or six families loosely related through kinship ties and organized by age and sex. Hunter-gatherers typically buffer temporary shortages and variable success in food acquisition by sharing. The risk of spoilage and patterns of unscheduled band movement discouraged initially the food storage. Widespread and overlapping networks of friendship also discourage food storage, for anyone doing this for his own future use would be regarded by others as selfish and treated accordingly.

Further, there was little incentive to modify the environment in even minor ways as a means to increase resource productivity. As we mentioned, the Paleo-Natives were initially free wandering hunters and foragers. Their settlement patterns indicate that they were highly mobile and lived in nonpermanent habitations. Adult males fished and hunted; women, children and older men caught small game and gathered berries. Women made clothing from hides; men made tools and boats. Reciprocity, sharing, and adoption of each other’s children ensured that all members of the band were cared for except under dire circumstances. Although males made decisions regarding band movements and hunting locations, male-female relationships were basically egalitarian since both sets of skills were essential for survival. New couples settled usually in the wife’s band.

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Small bands were simply too vulnerable to random catastrophe, and sooner or later they succumbed to it. It does not matter that such a catastrophe may be extremely rare, for it need occur only once. Consequently, bands typically maintain close relations with neighbouring bands. By extending the incest taboo and seeking marriage mates outside the immediate band, each band reinforces relations with those surrounding it, pushing the number of face-to-face interactions toward five hundred, the threshold number that mathematical modeling suggests is necessary for long-term survival of the society. Interestingly, this is also about the maximum number of face-to-face interactions most of us are individually able to maintain.

From a modern-day humanistic viewpoint, the population regulators within natives’ society were harsh: starvation, sickness, accident, massacre, suicide and infanticide but natives and environment were always in balance. Biologically as well as culturally, the native tribes were utilizing the renewable resource base of their territory.

Native economies before the contact period were thus subsistence economies. Native economies refer to traditional and local economic systems of indigenous peoples. These systems include a variety of land-based small-scale economic activities and practices as well as sustainable resource management. At the center of the economic activity is not the exchange for profit or competition but the sustenance of individuals, families, and the community. The subsistence-oriented economy ensured the continuation of the traditional social organization. Subsistence activities linked the generations and the extended family into a complex network of associations, rights, and obligations. This network both reflected and re-created the social order and was giving meaning and value to each person's contributions and rewards.

For many, the term "subsistence" carries negative connotations of primitive ways of life, a low standard of living, or "eking out" a wretched existence in conditions of poverty. For others, it refers to "primitive" societies of the past or rural communities in the developing world. Subsistence is both an economic and a social system, encompassing various spheres of life that often are inseparable from one another. It is characterized by endless circulation of goods, services, and other products. Subsistence, sometimes also called domestic production, follows the seasonal cycle of available resources—it has also been called the "seasonal, integrated economy"—and it includes hunting, fishing, gathering, trapping, and "other activities which provide income in kind—food, heat, clothing, shelter, and a variety of other subsistence goods and services" consumed by and shared within the family and community.Subsistence as a highly complex notion includes not only vital economic, but social, cultural and spiritual dimensions as well. Subsistence means much more than mere survival or minimum living standards. It enriched and sustained native communities in a manner that promotes cohesiveness, pride and sharing. Surplus was shared at numerous festivals and ceremonies that maintain the social cohesion of the community but also brought prestige to those who give and share their wealth. Sustainability was premised on an ethos of reciprocity in which people reciprocated not only with one another but also with the land and the spirit world.

Indigenous economies were thus contingent upon a stable and continuous relationship between the human and natural worlds. In other words, there was a crucial link between subsistence and indigenous knowledge. Individuals and communities acquired special knowledge, skills, and a complex understanding of the local environment through their various subsistence activities.

Besides sustainable practices, subsistence economy was based on unwritten laws and beliefs that ensured the survival of families and villages. They included codes of customs and behavior that ensured a proper spiritual relationship between humans and animals and conserved resources. The belief system of Native peoples suggested a close relationship with the land and animal kingdom that provided food and clothing. Amerindian life was thoroughly intertwined with the living beings and inanimate objects of the universe. Religious behaviour, characterized by a host of spirits and communal rituals, was left largely to the individual. They strictly defined the rights and duties and the obligations and privileges of tribal members. These laws operated effectively without any system of patents, land titles, or restrictions except self-imposed restrictions that have their origin in the Natives' age-old knowledge of and reliance on the natural world.

Native peoples displayed generally egalitarian qualities, in the sense that what the people produced and how it was distributed, exchanged and consumed were mutually decided upon. Tribal units worked according to consensus. This is consistent with other known features of Natives’ culture as well as with norms in living bands of hunter-gatherers. Leadership was ephemeral and based on the personal qualities of strong individuals.

The existence of egalitarian relations varied from group to group depending upon objective conditions of natural environment and the level of development of the productive forces. Land within the primitive equalitarian society of the Natives did not entailed a question of ownership; rather land was seen as existing for all and as producing what was to be used in a collective capacity. For the natives then, land functioned as a subject of the labour-process. In this sense labour extracted the necessities of life (which existed naturally) through the process of hunting and gathering.

Within the egalitarian society of natives, all individuals were as dependent upon the larger collective society as upon the nuclear family. The nuclear family functioned as an integral part of the collective society, and as such it was not an individual unit of production as within class society. Since women held mutual decision-making powers with men within the collective society, they were not economically or socially bound or dependent upon men within the family. Although household management within the family was exercised perhaps mostly by women due to varied expressions of the division of labour by sex, it was an integral part of the collective society as a whole and was not deemed to be of less or more importance than any other work.14777657874 9715d83fa8 z

Beginning around 2500 B.C. and lasting to at least A.D.400 in some places, Natives started to exert much more control over the propagation and production of edible plants. They were storable, and made a critical difference for people threatened mainly by episodes of starvation. Thus, the initial steps in agriculture made by Natives have slightly increased the amount of food available to store for use in winter and early spring, when supplies may have been low and no new crops were yet available.

Intimate familiarity with local food resources eventually led to a symbiotic relationship between Indians and some plants. The Canada onion (Allium canadense) occured in isolated patches around Late Archaic period sites in the Northeast. The flowers of this plant do not produce seeds, and it must reproduce from bulbs. Its sporadic appearance as far north as Ontario probably involved the establishment of beds by Archaic hunter-gatherers. Whether or not the creation of such beds was a conscious act, Archaic bands could later exploit them for food on scheduled visits to these sites. Elsewhere, the occasional tending of oak groves might have promoted acorn production, and periodic burning might have enhanced the productivity of patches of seed-bearing plants. Such activity is not farming, but neither is it the mere random exploitation of natural foods.

By the third millennium B.C.,Indian cultures in several parts of North America had moved from intensive foraging to the actual cultivation of some indigenous plants. The importance of sunflower, goosefoot, pigweed, knotweed, maygrass, and marsh elder was increasing, and the beginnings of horticulture were being practiced alongside traditional intensive hunting and gathering. Sunflower and sumpweed produced oily seeds, but not all of the plants tended at this time were exploited for their seeds. Goosefoot, knotweed, and maygrass provided starchy flour. Sunflowers included at least one species cultivated for its tubers. Cucurbits (gourds and squash) native to the Eastern Woodlands were used for their flesh as well as their seeds.

The beginnings of food production reduced the long-term risk of starvation and reinforced the social and political mechanisms that food storage and distribution entail. Those mechanisms were probably based primarily on kin units, extended family groups led by senior people. It is likely that women were increasingly among those leaders. Societies that rely heavily upon hunting for subsistence are typically dominated by men. However, gathering was often the responsibility of women, and the increasing importance of plant manipulation and plant food storage might have steadily enhanced the role of women.

Over thousands of years, had occurred a gradual emergence of social ranking. Archaeologically we see a gradual increase in the differential treatment of the dead, treatment that appears to reflect social differences that went beyond differences in age and sex. Some adult men were accorded lavish burials, others were not. The patterns of interment sometimes suggest that these differences went beyond what one might expect to emerge through the efforts of otherwise equal individuals. We can infer that the egalitarian system of the Paleo-Indian period was gradually replaced by an Archaic one in which social ranking became increasingly important.

On the social level, the Amerindians had started to have chiefs, due to the disruptive effect of the available surpluses over the equalitarian society. However, the leader’s authority rested largely on their ability to hold power to represent the common will. The balance between the needs of the group and the individual was a complex one that varied from one tribe to another, but in general Amerindians highly prized personal power and skill.

The economies of tribal units varied greatly as well, from highly socialized groups such as the Iroquois and West Coast Bella Coolawith with their multiple family units and elaborate villages, to nomadic family units of hunters and gatherers such as the Algonquian tribes. Some tribes, such as the Huron, honed their trading skills long before Europeans arrived.

Other units based much of their economy on agricultural pursuits. A trademark of Iroquoian peoples was their expertise in raising corn, beans, squash, and other vegetables. Some scholars estimate that the Huron rose by farming seventy-five percent of what they consumed in bountiful years.

In the prairies, tribes employed sophisticated hunting tactics to slaughter buffalo for food and clothing. West Coast Amerindians were adept at catching fish in the rich coastal waters and river systems; they were also exceptional woodworkers. The totem pole became one of the most recognizable symbols of North American Amerindians yet was the creation of West Coast Native peoples. Although tribal groups clearly had a sense of territory and familiarity with hunting, trapping, and fishing regions, they had no clear ownership tradition that a contemporary European would recognize or honour.

One of the most enduring and discernible contributions of Native peoples was their technological creations. Europeans would adapt so completely a host of Amerindian-designed tools and transportation devices that these would literally end up being considered emblematic of present-day Canada. A partial list would include the bark canoe, snowshoes, toboggans, and dogsleds. In addition, the techniques that Native peoples developed in growing edible plants, trapping animals, and curing pelts would be adopted wholesale by whites who were eager to exploit the resources of North America for their own use and European markets. Indeed, Amerindians pointed the way to the development of raw materials that would become the backbone of colonial and postcolonial economic development. The lucrative fur trade was a prime example.

Although the documentary evidence of the lives of Native peoples is more abundant after Europeans appeared, and tragically the postcontact era was rife with violent clashes between the cultures, enough evidence survives to suggest that Amerindians regularly warred on neighbouring tribes in the precontact period. Native peoples typically took captives into their tribes and made hostages of women and children to facilitate intricate trading relationships over the generations. Adoption of captives and intermarriage between tribes was not uncommon, and while countless wars and skirmishes defined in part the Amerindian life cycle, scholars are in some agreement that the utter destruction of tribes in warfare, while it might have occurred, was probably not a typical objective strategy for warring groups.

Although population estimates of groups before definitive census records are problematic, probably about 500,000 Native peoples lived in Canada on the eve of European contact in the late fifteenth century. Scholars place the range between a low of 300,000 and a high of 2 million, but the 500,000 figure has gained a measure of acceptance. The size of various tribal units and affiliated groups varied dramatically, with the largest populations clustered near plentiful resources and in more temperate climatic zones, such as along the present-day British Columbia coast, southern Ontario, and the lowlands along the St. Lawrence River. At least twelve major linguistic families, the two largest being the Athabaskan of the West and North and the Algonquian that dominated in the East, encompassed Canada’s Native peoples. A third linguistic branch, smaller in range but of critical importance for understanding Canadian history, was the Iroquoian group located in present-day New York state. For important moments in Canadian history, they ranged into southern Ontario and along the St. Lawrence River. Within these linguistic groups, defined by similar languages and cultures, over fifty distinct languages were spoken by Canada’s Amerindians.

The fragmentation and lack of cohesion among Native peoples, so clearly a hallmark of survival in the generations before contact, probably contributed to their demise after contact. Europeans determined that Native peoples lacked legal traditions, a sense of property rights, and a meaningful and organized religion. These were key touchstones for the European way of life, and all were ideals that they attempted to transplant in the New World.

Norsemen: Exploration and Settlement

The Vikings reached Canada 500 years before Columbus ever set sail to America. Few traditional records exist to give us a clear sense of the earliest European groups that came in contact with the North American continent. Without the benefit of compasses, which were introduced in the twelfth century, Nordic peoples made their way across the Atlantic from Iceland to Greenland over several centuries.

Around 1000 A.D. the viking Leif Eriksson made a voyage that brought him in contact with Baffin Island, the Labrador Coast, and a mysterious "Vinland" where the group found grapes and a temperate climate for wintering over. Scholars place Vinland somewhere between Labrador and Florida.

Loading his ship up with timber, Leif Ericsson returned to Greenland the following spring, and with that single voyage made both his fortune and his name. He would be known as "Leif the Lucky": the first European ever to set foot in North America. And although Leif himself never went back to Vinland, others soon followed. Leif Ericsson’s voyage and subsequent voyages to the coastal areas of present day Canada brought the younger brother of Leif Ericsson, Thorvald, into contact with people he named skraelings, or “barbarians”, probably occupants of the region known by the Norsemen as Helluland (Baffin Island and adjacent areas). A twelfth-century text, the Historia Norvegiae, states:

Beyond Greenland, still farther to the north, hunters have come across people of small stature who are called Skraelings. When they are struck with a weapon their wounds turn white and they do not bleed, but if they are killed they bleed almost endlessly. They do not know the use of iron, but employ walrus tusks as missiles and sharpened stones in place of knives.

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Scholars believe that “Skraelings” were Inuit-related peoples. This was a pivotal moment, not just in Canadian history, but in the history of mankind as a whole. Spilling out of Africa, the human race had pushed north into Europe and east into Asia. The migration had crossed the Bering Strait and spread across North America. And now, on this wind swept coast, the two sides had come full circle. It was a reunion as much as it was "first contact." Bloody confrontations between the groups thwarted the efforts of Nordic peoples to colonize the Vinland settlement, and trade for raw materials such as wood probably accounted for the only contact between Europeans and Amerindians in this early stage.

The only Norse site that has been confirmed in Canada, located in the northwestern tip of Newfoundland, is L'Anse-aux-Meadows. If the Norse settlement at L'Anse-aux-Meadows was not the Vinland of Norse legend, it was at least the gateway to a new continent. It was suggested that L'Anse aux Meadows operated as a base camp, a gateway to the heart of Vinland. According to the period’s key source—the Viking sagas, or oral accounts passed along by generations through the centuries— it is possible that other Norse settlements existed in northern North America for a brief time. The remains of a small number of earthen huts and some artefacts indicate that Norse peoples had a temporary settlement in Canada around the year 1000 A.D. Women were known to be present because of the discovery of implements that were used to make yarn from wool.

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The hearty Nordic peoples who touched on the Arctic islands and northern continental coast did, however, point to an essential truth in Canadian history. The land was rich in resources such as timber and fish. Canada had much to offer as the European continent experienced dramatic population growth and economic development.

The irregular encounters probably ceased around the thirteenth century. Nordic peoples retreated even from the older Greenland settlements because of increasingly cold temperatures, so the story of Nordic contact is disconnected from the intensive European drive that erupted in the fifteenth century to explore and colonize the New World.


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