Bison hunters more advanced than thought: archaeologist

August 15, 2006

A University of Calgary archaeologist has proposed a controversial theory suggesting the First Nations of the Canadian Plains developed complex tribal social structures some 1,700 years earlier than many researchers believe.

Until now, a commonly held view outside the Canadian Plains has been that the arrival in the 1600s of Europeans and the domesticated horse were the main catalysts that caused Plains Aboriginal people to abandon small bands in favour of large tribes. But Dr. Dale Walde, writing in the most recent edition of the prestigious journal World Archaeology, says the archaeolgical record from bison kill and camp sites, together with evidence from ceramics found in Alberta and Saskatchewan, tell a different story.

"It's important that we recognize the achievements of Aboriginal people, prior to the advent of Europeans," Walde says. "There has been a tendency by some to regard them as simple hunter-gatherers with very basic levels of social organization, living hand to mouth in small bands - but that really isn't accurate."

Walde suggests that pressure from horticultural groups from the midwestern U.S. may have prompted Canadian Plains First Nations to change their bison hunting strategies and to organize themselves into larger groups. Ancestors of Blackfoot and Nakoda peoples, such as the Siksika and Stoney, created hunting traps such as buffalo* jumps and pounds, which facilitated large-scale processing and storage.

"My theory is that tribal groups from the south and east would have come in and taken the buffalo themselves, had the Plains Indians not developed the means to hunt more bison and trade bison products with them," he says. "This is the first time anyone has suggested this sort of mechanism for that evolution."

Beginning about 2,500 to 2,000 years ago, there was a marked increase in the size and frequency of bison kills, Walde says. Some of the data he looked at came from sites such as Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump near Fort Macleod, the Bodo Bison Skull site northeast of Calgary near the Saskatchewan border, and the Estuary Bison Pound, in southwestern Saskatchewan.

"There may have been as many as 3,000 people living at some of these sites for as long as eight months at a time, so there would have to have been some more complex level of organization to keep them living there in harmony," he says.

Hunters used sophisticated methods to manoeuvre a herd to a buffalo jump or corral, which would often take several days and cover many kilometres. They used fire and wolf and bison calf disguises to guide the herd toward what are called drive lanes. Once the animals entered these drive lanes, hunters would stampede the herd. People stationed along the lanes would keep them on course toward the cliff or corral by yelling and waving blankets.

Walde and other archaeologists working in the northern Prairies have also found pottery and a type of flint that originates with the horticulturally based Missouri-area Indians, suggesting trade networks evolved between the two groups.

Sonia Zarrillo, a University of Calgary PhD student, analysed some of the pottery found in Saskatchewan and Alberta. "Analysis revealed that all of these vessels contained maize that most likely originated from the Middle Missouri area," Zarrillo says. "As maize was not known to have been grown in Alberta or Saskatchewan until the historic period, it indicates that trade was taking place between the people of the northern plains and other groups from the Middle Missouri."
For a copy of Walde's paper, "Sedentism and pre-contact tribal organization on the northern plains: colonial imposition or indigenous development?" contact Greg Harris at To speak to Dr. Walde, contact his office at (403) 220-4850, or email For more information, or photographs of some of the ceramics, contact Greg Harris, U of C media relations, at (403) 220-3506, or cell 540-7306.

*NOTE: 'Buffalo' is the commonly used name for the North American bison, however true buffalo species are found only in Asia and Africa.

University of Calgary

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