Skip to content
Canada’s First Inhabitants
Wikipedia photo of a Haida totem pole from Tanu, Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands), British Columbia. 

Canada’s First Inhabitants

In a new Quillette series, historian and podcaster Greg Koabel traces the global origins of the land we now call Canada.

· 26 min read

What follows is the first instalment of The Nations of Canada, a serialized project adapted from transcripts of Greg Koabel’s ongoing podcast of the same name, which began airing in 2020.  

I struggled for a little while to come up with a place to start Canada’s story. If I waited until the idea of Canada as a place and a people emerged, we’d be missing out on most of the story, and thousands of years of history. But reach too far back and it becomes difficult to talk about Canada with any coherence. For a long time, the peoples of Canada were divided into several loosely connected groups, many with zero knowledge of or contact with one another. Arranging that into one, unified narrative, would be ahistorical, and trying to tell every Canadian story would risk incoherence.

But, in the end, I decided the best place to start was the beginning, and we’ll just have to strike a compromise between the forward trajectory of the narrative, and a few individual stories to focus on along the way.

J.V. Wright, in his comprehensive multi-volume synthesis of First Nations Canadian archaeology, outlines what the study of the physical relics of the past can and can’t do. When it comes to Canada before European contact, Wright concedes that “the great orators, leaders, inventors, and religious prophets so essential to the writing of documentary history are silent, and will remain so.” But while it is difficult for archaeology to reconstruct those individual stories, it can reveal how societies were organized, and what daily life might have looked like. That’s the goal anyway.

So, back to the beginning of Canada’s story. As I’ve mentioned, when that beginning actually was (in other words, when humans entered the North American continent) is a hotly contested issue among archaeologists. Though, barring one or two outlandish speculations about trans-Pacific Ocean travel, there is a consensus on the indigenous peoples of the Americas being the descendants of hunter/gatherer societies in north Asia (in modern day Russia).

The earliest evidence of humans in the Asian subarctic, near the Pacific coast, is around 25,000 to 30,000 years ago. These men and women followed herds of mammoths and other game across the Siberian plain, using co-operation and stone tools and weapons to bring down their prey. By the time they reached the Pacific Ocean, the coastline was roughly comparable to today—the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska.

Unbeknownst to them, however, a submerged patch of land some 2,000 km wide, covering 1.6 million square km, connected Asia and America just below the surface of the ocean. Beringia (as this land mass is known) is 50 metres underwater today, and would have been similarly invisible to the first of our Siberian mammoth hunters who arrived at the shore.

A U.S. National Park Service map of Beringia’s contours 23,000 years ago.

But 50 metres of ocean meant little in the highly volatile water levels of an ice age. From about 75,000 years ago to 45,000 years ago, the water captured in the polar ice sheets pushed the ocean level down, exposing Beringia. But by the time humans were moving across Siberia, that ice age had receded. With the melting of the ice, Beringia once again slipped under the waves.

I should mention that there is some speculation that humans could have reached Beringia during that earlier window between 75,000 and 45,000 years ago, but the evidence is not definitive. It has also been suggested that people could have crossed over the narrow strait between Asia and Alaska without the need for a land bridge. A similar seaborn migration was happening at the same time in Australia (roughly 60,000 to 40,000 years ago). But while the distances were roughly comparable, ocean travel was much easier in south-east Asia than in the north. The dual threats of storms and ice floes make most archaeologists hesitant to support a theory of migration across the open sea without definitive evidence (which has yet to emerge).

We do know, however, that humans were around for the next window: Another ice age revealed Beringia starting around 25,000 years ago, soon after the mammoth hunters arrived in the area. In a geological sense, the lowering of the sea level would have been startlingly rapid, but for those living through it, it would have been a gradual process, playing out over generations. At first, new islands became visible offshore. Then, eventually, the land mass itself emerged. Finally, it took time for Beringia to grow the biomass necessary to support large grazing animals (and by extension the humans who hunted them).

For a period of about 4,000 years (from 18,000 years ago to 14,000 years ago), Beringia was a fully habitable ecosystem, capable of supporting human life. Which is sort of an important point. The term “land bridge” that is sometimes used to describe Beringia is a bit of a misnomer: The initial inhabitants stayed put for centuries, in part because massive glaciers blocked further eastern progress through Alaska.

Another reason was that Beringia provided a perfectly liveable environment. The hybrid of steppe and tundra would have been familiar to the hunters of eastern Siberia. Glacier-fed river valleys produced grass and shrubland, attracting large mammals, and warm ocean currents from Japan made Beringia warmer than either Alaska to the east, or Siberia to the west. Mammoth, great bison, caribou, and wild horses all joined humans in populating the new land.

Our knowledge of human activity in Beringia during this time is, however, somewhat limited. Archaeologists are hampered by the fact that all evidence of human life in the area is now underwater. Most of what we know has been pieced together by archaeological finds on the edges of the former land-mass on either side of the current Bering Strait.

This period of relative stability in Beringia came to an end around 14,000 years ago. The end of the last major ice age was likely a cataclysmic event for the populations of Beringia (both human and animal alike). The process by which Beringia had appeared from under the ocean now started to reverse itself. Water levels rose, dramatically altering the landscape, and disrupting the movements and size of the grazing herds on which humans depended.

On the plus side, the rising sea levels were accompanied (and in fact caused by) the gradual melting of the glaciers barring entry into America. The problem was, revolutionary changes are messy, especially when they are forced by the destruction of your homeland. As Beringia turned back into a series of islands, and then returned to the sea, its residents fled. Most appear to have returned to their ancestral lands in Asia. But some headed eastward, into modern day Alaska and the Yukon.

Further progress into the American continent proved difficult. Although the great glaciers of the ice age were receding, two massive ice formations separated the far north from the rest of the American continent. Running along the Rocky Mountains was the Cordilleran Ice Sheet. And covering almost the entirety of Canada, from the Atlantic, through the Great Lakes, and covering most of the prairies, was the massive Laurentide Ice Sheet.

Until these glaciers receded (a process that would take another few thousand years), access to the Americas was limited. For those adventurous enough to try, there were two paths through the ice, both dangerous and inhospitable.

The first was a corridor between the two glacier formations, running along the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains. However, unlike Beringia, this landscape was not very inviting to hunter/gatherers. Rather than scrub land cut through by rivers, the corridor was marked by rugged, rocky terrain. It is possible that intrepid humans could have survived a long march through the corridor to the richer lands beyond, but it’s not clear what their incentive would have been since they had no guarantee that anything worthwhile lay at the other end.

What’s more, despite decades of searching, archaeologists have not turned up any evidence of humans in the corridor during this period.

The second option open to the first Americans was the coastal route. The west coast down from Alaska, through present day British Columbia, posed its own challenges. The coastline would have been much less hospitable than it is today, with ice posing a challenge to any ocean going vessels, or anyone trying to find reliable sources of food. Though the sea provided more sources of the food necessary to sustain a human population than the land corridor.

But, just as with the land corridor, archaeologists have not found any direct evidence of humans travelling by the coastal route at the end of the last ice age. In this case though, there is at least a plausible explanation. Ocean levels would not stabilize at their present levels for a few more thousand years. The lands these hypothetical migrants occupied are now under the Pacific Ocean, off the west coast. Evidence of human activity is therefore difficult to uncover (if it hasn’t all been entirely destroyed by the sea to begin with).

The debate about whether the Americas were entered through the land corridor or by coastal migration remains an active one among archaeologists. The coastal theory sounds more plausible to me—but since my experience as an archaeologist is limited to pretending to be Indiana Jones when I was eight years old, I wouldn’t put much weight on my opinion.

The west coast theory has also been strengthened in recent years by discoveries that have pushed back the date at which the first Americans moved beyond their Alaskan beachhead. There is now evidence of human occupation south of the arctic from around 16,000 years ago (when Beringia was still a fully viable environment). We don’t know exactly what the north-west coast was like at that time, but the inland corridor was only starting to form then, and would have been very unfriendly to human life.

The archaeological evidence has been supplemented by linguistic analysis that seeks to reproduce these initial migrations by studying the languages of the current indigenous populations of the Americas. One such linguistic model divides the indigenous peoples of North and South America into three language families.

The first, the Amerind language family, is the most widespread—covering all of South America, most of the United States, and reaching into the Great Lakes and Canadian Shield of Eastern Canada. In theory, these are the descendants of the earliest migrations south from Alaska.

The next to set down roots on the continent was the Na-Dene language family, which includes the Athabascan speakers of the northern Canadian prairies and sub-arctic, as well as many of the nations along the west coast and interior Rocky Mountains. The Navajo and Apache of the south-western United States are also members of the Na-Dene language family. Their migration into America seems to have come a bit later, in the final cataclysmic days of Beringia.

A final (much later) language group, which spread across the far north of Canada is the Eskimo-Aleut family. Starting a scant 4,000 years ago, successive waves of Eskimo-Aleut speakers moved from Alaska’s Pacific coast and spread across the far north of Canada (a forbidding terrain that all previous Americans had left unoccupied).

This neat division of the American indigenous population into language groups and associated waves of migration has its problems, however. There is some basis for the Na-Dene and Eskimo-Aleut language groups, but many linguists are skeptical that the vast collection of peoples included in the initial Amerind group can be considered a coherent language family.

The further we reach back in time, the less confident we can be about any reconstruction of the great American migration.

Where we do begin to see some kind of archaeological consensus is on what happened once the ice age dam burst. Both North and South America were occupied remarkably quickly. By 10,000 years ago, the northern migrants had spread to nearly every corner of the Americas. The one main exception was modern day Canada. The great Laurentide ice sheet still covered a large swath of the continent, and would only gradually recede over the next few thousand years.

It is one of those neat twists of history that the west coast of Canada likely acted as the highway by which the Americas were populated, but Canada itself was the last corner of the two American continents to be conquered by humanity. Most of the initial migrants into Canada came from the south, following in the wake of the retreating ice.

The first Americans, who successfully settled in environments from southern Argentina to the scrubland at the foot of the northern glaciers, were an adaptable people. They were descended from the mammoth hunters of Siberia, but the process of moving across Beringia and down into the Americas had required the development of a broader set of skills. Especially if they arrived via the west coast, the Americans would have required some rudimentary naval technology (both for travel, and to exploit the resources of the sea).

Archaeologists describe these early migrants as non-specialists. This was by necessity. Technology and types of social organizations that were too dependent on one particular method of subsistence would be a handicap in the diverse environments of the new lands they encountered.

Fluctuations in temperature were common, not to mention sudden and dramatic changes in rainfall that radically altered the ecosystems that human populations depended on. The climate (just like sea levels) was highly unstable in this period. Not until around 5,000 years ago did things stabilize into something recognizable as our climate today. Being a jack of all trades, and having flexible forms of social organization, were therefore virtues.

The best evidence we have of this turbulent time comes from the large mammals the Americans hunted—mostly because their remains are preserved, whereas other sources of food (such as fish, wild fruits, and nuts) are not.

In the period between the great migration into America, and when the climate stabilized, roughly 60 species of large mammals went extinct. Determining what role humans played in this process is impossible to do with any precision. It’s possible that introducing a new predator (humans) had a devastating effect on large grazers native to the Americas. Certainly many of the species worst affected would also have been those most attractive to prospective hunters—large, slow, and full of nutrition.

On the other hand, the wave of extinctions pre-dated the arrival of humans, and likely had more to do with the ongoing shocks to local ecosystems caused by the unstable climate. Of the major extinctions, only a handful can be associated with human activity: American versions of the camel and the horse, as well as mastodons, mammoths, and the sabre-tooth tiger. According to archaeologist J.V. Wright, the most we can say with any degree of certainty is that in some cases the arrival of humans “hastened a process of natural extinction.”

But the focus on the hunting practices of the first Americans (while understandable considering the evidence we have) misses out on the wide ranging activities of the early Americans. The migrants were quick to adapt to local conditions wherever they found themselves, and did not simply follow mammoth herds from Siberia to the tip of South America. Over time, especially once the climate stabilized, flexibility gave way to local specialization.

Which is a good place to turn this broadly American story into a narrow Canadian one—which is, after all, why we’re all here.

But “narrow” is not exactly the right word, because Canada is a pretty massive place, encompassing different landscapes and environments. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to set out the lay of the land in Canada, and explore how the various peoples that initially populated those environments adapted to local conditions.

We start in the west. Not just because that creates a satisfying left-to-right reading of the map, but because (if we’re adhering to the west coast theory of migration) that’s where Canada’s first residents lived. Certainly, the west coast has some of the earliest known sites of human occupation in Canada. There is evidence of settlement on Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) from as early as 12,000 years ago.

Now, I mentioned earlier that the division of the Americans into three basic linguistic groups has been criticized for being too simplistic. Well, one of the problems with this model becomes apparent on Canada’s west coast. Half of all the indigenous language groupings in Canada exist on a narrow strip of coastline in modern British Columbia. There is an incredible amount of diversity in a tiny bit of territory. This suggests that the First Nations on the west coast might be the descendants of various peoples who travelled down from Beringia, while not being directly related to those who went on to populate the rest of the continent.

Another explanation for this linguistic diversity comes from the geography of Canada’s Pacific coast. The densely forested coast quickly gives way to rugged mountains, making overland travel quite difficult. As a result, communities that are relatively close to one another geographically speaking can remain fairly isolated culturally speaking. Over generations, this can produce quite distinct languages.

Unfortunately, most of the evidence of life in the first few thousand years has been lost to rising sea levels. Our best guess is that large sea mammals, rather than fish, were the basis of the coastal economy. The frequent changes in water levels meant that fishing grounds were not predictable nor reliable enough to be the focal point for communities.

That seemed to change around 5,000 years ago, when shorelines stabilized, and rivers began to produce rich delta ecosystems. This attracted fish in large numbers, especially salmon. Relatively large, semi-permanent settlements started to spring up soon after. At first, life followed a seasonal cycle. In late summer, the community would assemble for the massive haul of salmon heading up river to their spawning grounds. Then everyone would break into smaller groups of nuclear families, to hunt and trap through the winter.

This will turn out to be a similar pattern as we move across Canada. The specific resources will change, but generally speaking life followed the same seasonal pattern. Part of the year, people gathered in large groups to access or process a great concentration of resources. Then, for part of the year (usually the winter), they would disperse into smaller family groups.

This is not an uncommon model for non-agricultural societies to follow. When you don’t grow all your resources in one place, seasonal movements are necessary. And as each season brings different kinds of resources, they might also require different forms of social organization.

What makes the west coast different is that around 3,000 years ago (so, roughly 1,000 BC) that pattern began to change.

The settlements around the best fishing grounds started to be occupied all year round. What went on in those villages also changed. In older sites, archaeologists struggle to see any differentiation between dwellings or individuals. Society appeared to be egalitarian (again, a common trait in non-agricultural societies). But after 3,000 years ago, sites show evidence of growing social stratification. Some dwellings are considerably larger than others, and some bodies are treated far more reverentially in burial.

This trend towards a more hierarchical society, permanently anchored in one location, suggests the development of agriculture. But that actually wasn’t what was happening.

Instead, the salmon were so plentiful, and so concentrated in particular locations, that their abundance led to economic, social, and political effects similar to those associated with the adoption of agriculture elsewhere in the world. Maintaining control over valuable territory, as well as control over preserved salmon stocks for the winter, enabled (and necessitated) the development of sophisticated political and social hierarchies.

The result was a flowering of culture, particularly when it came to the easily worked softwoods of the region. Most famously, this meant the carving of monumental totem poles commemorating a community’s ancestors. But there was also a wide variety of other decorative and symbolic objects carved by west coast artists. The ocean-going canoes so important in linking communities together were richly decorated with wood carvings.

Early 20th-Century postcard depicting a coastal Haida village at Masset, Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia.

Larger communities that lived together permanently also required complex rituals to maintain order (and reinforce the hierarchy). Most prominent among these was the potlatch, a ceremony that often marked major events such as a birth, death, or marriage. Each nation had its own version of the potlatch, but they followed a general pattern. The great men of the community would play host, and demonstrate their status and prestige by giving away or destroying as much of their wealth as possible. Potential rivals, or visiting chieftains would have to respond in kind, or risk losing face.

The potlatch served multiple functions. It reinforced the social position of the quasi-aristocrats who controlled the salmon. Their elevated status did not just rest on brute force, but the prestige and respect that came from frequent displays of generosity. The redistribution of wealth may also have acted as a social lubricant, muting any complaints about inequality. Also, the potlatch provided opportunities for non-violent social mobility. An ambitious young man could make a name for himself at the potlatch, rather than trying to secure a seat at the table through violence.

And finally, the potlatch served a diplomatic function, facilitating peaceful relations between villages. That was important, because the hierarchical settlements on the west coast also introduced to Canada a more destructive element of sedentary life—warfare.

As with all human societies, violence had likely been a part of life for all the peoples who migrated into the Americas after the last ice age. But the warfare I’m referring to here was a new kind of violence in terms of organization and scale.

Alongside the permanent settlements, archaeologists have come across the residue of organized violence. A larger proportion of bodies with violent injuries; decapitated bodies and what appear to be trophy skulls; and the implements of war—stone or bone clubs, and armor made of wood, bone, or copper plate.

It’s possible that the increase in violence was a product of competition over the best salmon locations. The exploitation of the plentiful fish stocks does appear to have fuelled a population boom that may have heightened competition. But cultural pressures might have been just as important as economic ones. For an aristocratic class whose legitimacy rested on personal prestige, success in warfare may have been a necessary component of maintaining authority. It does seem that the spoils of war (which included enemy war canoes and captured slaves) were highly valued commodities at the potlatch. Securing the spoils of war may have become a necessary component of the west coast social structure. Certainly the most powerful nations (such as the Haida) were feared for their slave raids.

Unfortunately, much of our understanding of these west coast societies is fragmented and uncertain. Unlike with the indigenous nations on the east coast, by the time the first Europeans encountered and recorded their interactions with the First Nations of the West, European diseases had already ravaged their populations—dramatically altering all facets of society.

Leaving the uniquely hierarchical societies of the west coast for now, we hike up the Rocky Mountains and move into the interior plateaus. These highlands became habitable as the glaciers retreated, only becoming fit for human settlement around 8,000 years ago. Migrants from two language groups quickly moved in—Salish-speakers from the south-west (Salish being one of the coastal languages), and Athabaskans from the Na-Dene language group from the north. Both groups engaged in a seasonal cycle of settling at busy fishing rapids in the summer, and small hunting communities in the winter.

On the other side of the Rockies lay a vast stretch of open land. To the north was a broad band of boreal forest that ran from the mountains to the Atlantic. To the south were the expansive prairies (or, for Americans, the Great Plains). These steppe grasslands stretched eastwards to the rocky terrain of the Canadian Shield and the Great Lakes.

The northern forests were populated by a widely dispersed and culturally diverse set of peoples that all belonged to the Athabascan language group (a major component of the Na-Dene language family). Considering they occupied a massive stretch of land from the Rocky Mountains to Hudson Bay, and from the margins of the arctic to the prairie in the south, grouping them all together into one description is a terrible idea. But, I fear that I must do it anyway.

Map of Athabascan language groupings.

Resources in the boreal forests were not as plentiful as they were further south, and so population densities were quite low. Limited options also meant that, generally speaking, the Athabascan speakers of the boreal forest relied heavily on herds of caribou for their economic needs. This created a far different society than that of the west coast villages with their dependable supply of salmon. Waiting to catch sight of the great caribou herds was an annual test of communal anxiety. The temporary settlements Athabascans lived in tended to have panoramic views, to catch sight of their prey from a distance, or sat by river crossings often used by caribou herds.

In fact, even Athabascan marriage practices may have been shaped by caribou anxiety. Like most indigenous societies, Athabascan women left their communities to join those of their husbands. There was one notable exception to the practice (but we’ll get to that in a future instalment). Across Canada, this meant women were important in the spread of technology, especially once the use of pottery spread into the region. In fact, one of the interesting things about Canadian archaeology is that sites often seem to be a muddle of different cultures, with multiple regional styles of pottery existing in one place. That’s because women often brought the techniques of their ancestors with them when they joined new communities.

But, back to the Athabascans and their reliance on the caribou: It seems that in these cultures, inter-tribal marriages were a kind of insurance policy. If one group failed to locate the herd, they could avoid disaster and starvation by appealing to another group that they were linked to by marriage. Women were therefore important diplomatic bridges between communities, mitigating some of the risk associated with life in the boreal sub-arctic.

South of the Athabascan caribou hunters were the bison hunters of the prairie. Several different peoples shared the land, such as Athabascan speakers from the north, or Algonquin speakers from the woodlands of the east. Most important though, was the northern extremity of the Siouan language group that occupied the American plains, and extended down the Mississippi Valley.

Map depicting pre-contact distribution of Siouan languages.

As a bit of an aside, there is a danger that this whirlwind tour of ancient Canada leaves the impression that each region produced a society adapted to its environment, which remained static for centuries. In fact, this was a dynamic world. We’ve already seen an example of that on the west coast, where society underwent a dramatic change around 3,000 years ago.

On the prairies, there were two major developments in this period. The first was a sudden warm period from about 8,000 years ago to 5,000 years ago. As always with the maddeningly intricate global ecosystem, the general rise in average temperatures hid a wide array of different climate effects in different parts of the world. But what’s important for us is that the prairies became much drier than they had been in the past. Suddenly, the grasses were not as plentiful as they had been, and competition between various species of grazing animals became fierce.

This was the final phase of the great climactic shifts that had marked the end of the ice age. And one grazing animal in particular emerged victorious: the bison.

Indians Hunting Bison, a 19th-century illustration created by Swiss-French lithographer Karl Bodmer. 

Once they had faced competition for grazing from mammoths, camels, horses, and the giant bison (an ancient beast that was 50 percent bigger than the modern bison, with horns up to four times larger). But all those rivals were now extinct. The regular sized bison was far more efficient in extracting nutrition from the grasses of the prairie, and was better able to adapt to the challenges of a changing climate.

Like the caribou hunters in the boreal forests to the north, the bison hunters of the prairie developed technologies and social structures around their prey. If anything, the peoples of the prairie were even more specialized in their relationship with the bison. The large herds were not domesticated exactly, but in practice they were in some sense controlled by human ingenuity.

At the seasonal peak, a group of 1,000 or even 2,000 people might follow a herd, driving it into pre-determined kill zones such as ponds, river beds, or kettles (crater-like features cut into the prairie by retreating glaciers). The most famous of these is Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a set of cliffs in the Alberta foothills. Specially trained runners drove the bison herd toward the edge of the cliffs, forcing large numbers of them to be pushed over the edge by the press of the herd. The earliest evidence of Head-Smashed-In’s use is 6,000 years ago, and it was still in use in the late 19th century.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

This site, and others like it, could only function with a large group of people working together. Not only did the herd have to be managed, and driven to the kill zone, but processing the bison was an ever bigger job. This massive co-operative project required temporary forms of decision-making and conflict resolution (as with any group of that size, conflicts were inevitable). Flexible forms of social organization likely developed, which could adapt to the communal hunt, as well as to the periods when everyone went their separate ways in smaller family groups to live off of local game for the winter.

The second change on the prairies was the development of pemmican, a method of preserving meat. The process involved drying thin slices of meat, beating or pounding it until powder-like, then mixing it with fat. The result was preserved protein, which could then be used in meals all through the winter.

As we’ve seen, the ability to preserve a surplus of food on the west coast revolutionized society. The development of pemmican around 3,000 years ago brought about a similar, if somewhat less dramatic change on the prairies. The ability to store food produced in the summer allowed for even bigger summer hunts. Where previously, the hunt was limited by what could be eaten in a relatively short period of time, it now became an event that fed bellies all year round. Which meant that it was no longer necessary to split into small family groups to survive the winter. The temporary communities that had once gathered for the hunt no longer had to be quite so temporary.

There was a similar dynamic in those eastern woodlands. From where the prairies end in present day Manitoba, to the Atlantic Ocean, Canada was covered by forest. To the north was a massive coniferous forest, growing out of the rocky terrain of the Canadian Shield. To the south were the more mixed forests of the Great Lakes region, along with a soil and climate more suitable to agriculture. The Atlantic coast also acted as its own environmental zone with maritime resources playing an important role in the societies that formed there.

Typical Canadian Shield geography, near Flin Flon, Manitoba, with Big Island Lake in the background.

Most of this territory was occupied by members of the Algonquian language family (the one exception being the Iroquoian language family centred around Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, and the upper St. Lawrence River).

To take the boreal forests of the Canadian Shield first, the Algonquin-speakers here shared much in common with the Athabascans of the western sub-arctic. Aside from the arctic itself, this was where the glaciers of the ice age made their last stand, and the full territory up to Hudson Bay only became habitable around 4,000 years ago. As with the western boreal forests, the northern climate here could not support dense populations.

The subsistence profile in the east was different, however. Caribou was still important, but settlements were usually chosen for their proximity to good fishing grounds rather than keeping an eye on the caribou herds. Narrows provided a far more reliable source of food than the unpredictable caribou, with some particularly good fishing grounds repeatedly used for seasonal settlements over thousands of years.

The river-side settlements also point to the importance of the extensive waterways on the Canadian Shield. Rivers provided quick access to the Hudson Bay to the north, the Great Lakes to the south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east.

Piecing together life on the Canadian Shield before European contact is perhaps more difficult than anywhere else in Canada. In part this is because the acidic soils of the Shield do not allow for the preservation of human remains. But also, these societies were deeply influenced by Europeans (and their interest in the fur trade) well before any Europeans arrived to document local traditions. The French, English, and Dutch only dealt with peoples further south who acted as middlemen, but the northern forests were the source of the furs, a fact that dramatically altered these northern economies and societies.

The Algonquin speakers on the Atlantic coast (in modern day New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and eastern Quebec), had a different environment to adapt to. (Newfoundland’s history is something I’ll cover separately: The island was occupied, then abandoned by a series of different peoples before European contact.)

In the broader maritime region, the year was divided by the season. In the summer, the people settled along narrows and rapids in the rivers, to catch the annual spawning runs of fish and fatty eels. In the winter, communities moved down-river to settle on the coast. There, they could gather shellfish in the tidal areas during fall and spring, and hunt sea mammals such as seals.

The level of co-operation this required led to a form of social hierarchy, as hunting vessels required crews, led by a captain. As a result, the east coast had the first recorded instances of ceremonial burial in Canada, as special status was conferred upon the leaders of the hunt—though it’s unclear how permanent these hierarchies were, or whether such status could be inherited. In other words, despite the emergence of ceremonial burial, the east coast does not appear to have fostered the same kind of complex, stratified societies that emerged on the west coast.

Finally, I want to turn to the Great Lakes region, up the St. Lawrence River from the Maritimes. The forests there were more temperate than the boreal Shield to the north, and the soils less rocky. As noted earlier, the Algonquins shared this land with people of the Iroquoian language group, a comparatively small collection of peoples that occupied modern day southern Ontario, northern New York, and western Quebec.

The region provided a far greater variety of resources than anywhere else in the east. The deciduous forests produced nuts and berries (in particular the nutritious butternut). There was also a more diverse array of game. Rather than relying on caribou herds, the people of the Great Lakes region hunted deer and turkey and trapped plenty of smaller game.

The Great Lakes region was also well connected to the areas around it. The St. Lawrence acted as a highway, linking the Maritimes to the western lakes of Huron and Superior. Numerous tributaries split off north and south, providing access to both the Canadian Shield to the north, and the river valleys of the modern United States to the south.

Modern map of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin, produced by the Great Lakes Commission. 

These waterways facilitated the movement of goods and ideas across long distances, with the Great Lakes region acting as a giant node. Copper from Lake Superior moved all the way to the Atlantic coast, while stone from quarries deep in the Ohio Valley to the south made their way north.

The Niagara peninsula, in south-eastern Ontario, appears to have produced a particularly prized kind of stone. There is evidence of workshops in the area devoted to the production of tools and weapons that were then exported as far afield as New England, or the Canadian Shield to the north.

Trade also necessitated cultural exchange, with pidgin trade languages developing on the margins between language groups. Some Iroquoian peoples would even make seasonal fishing trips down the St. Lawrence to the coast, interacting with their distant neighbours to the east.

In the long run, however, it would be the movement of ideas that defined life in the Great Lakes region. An early example of the this came from a culture in the south-western part of the modern state of Ohio.

Centred around an archaeological site at Adena (and so, named the Adena culture), this society had sophisticated forms of ceremonial burial, which spread northwards, reaching the Great Lakes by around 2,500 years ago. Bodies were wrapped in birch bark, then painted with red ochre. Various stone tools and implements were buried with the body (many of them produced with stone quarried from around Adena itself).

Textbook image and description of a conical Adena burial mound.

The symbolic importance of Adena stone, along with the fact that these burials appear to have been reserved for a privileged few, suggest that this culture was spreading through a mixture of spiritual and commercial activity—perhaps a travelling class of shaman/trader. In the centuries that followed, technology and culture would continue to flow up the southern river valleys toward the Great Lakes, transforming societies.

By around 2,000 years ago, the great migration had long since been completed, and the great diversification of Canada’s regions was firmly under way. Some broad commonalities remained, however. Aside from the stratified societies of the west coast, with their permanent settlements, most Canadians lived mobile lives, following their sources of food as the seasons changed. This might be the great migratory herds of the plains of the boreal forest, or a seasonal shift between summer fishing grounds and winter hunting.

Societies were also largely egalitarian (again, aside from the hierarchical communities on the west coast). This was a necessity in a world of precarious resources. Methods of social organization had to be highly flexible to adapt to the changing needs of large, communal activities in one season, and isolated nuclear families in another. Political leadership was usually only temporary (limited to a particular time and a particular task), and relied heavily on consensus rather than coercion. As I’ve emphasized, life in ancient Canada was dynamic, rather than static. Changes in the environment, the movement of people, and the development of new technologies, continued to re-shape societies throughout this period.

In the next two instalments, I will track two especially disruptive changes that occurred before significant European contact in the 16th century. One will take place in the Great Lakes region, where an economic revolution would overturn the social and political systems of the Iroquoian speaking peoples.

The other will take place in the Arctic, the one region I’ve mostly ignored till now—mostly because the first people to settle there arrived much later. From 1,000 AD to around 1,350, the icy waters in northern Canada hosted an unlikely meeting of peoples. Expert whale hunters from the Pacific coast of Alaska moved east, and encountered Scandinavian farmers pressing westward in search of pastureland. Canada was getting its first taste of globalization.

You might also like

On Instagram @quillette