The earliest peoples that we know of in Canada are described using the term "Palaeo", which means "old". Palaeo-Indians are defined by their use of a fluted style of spear point, more commonly known as "Clovis" points . These chipped-stone points have a long groove called a "flute", made by chipping a single flake from each side of the point. The point was tied onto the spear and the groove helps the point to lie snugly on the end.

Palaeo-Indians moved into new territory as it emerged from under the glaciers and developed the perfect environment for big game to flourish. As the environment changed, animals would migrate to take advantage of the new sources of food and the people would move with them. The Palaeo-Indians came northward from the United States, following animals like bison, mammoth and mastadon, and caribou. There is also evidence that they used other food sources, like plants, smaller animals, and fish when available. Key Palaeo-Indian sites have been found in northern British Columbia, western Alberta, southern Ontario and central Nova Scotia. Other less-definitive finds are in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland & Labrador.

Since only stone tools have been found in Palaeo-Indian archaeological sites, it can be hard to fully understand what life was like for these ancient peoples or what they looked like. We can, however, assume some things about Palaeo-Indian culture based on the evidence we have:

1. The lifestyles of the Palaeo-Indians were basically the same, no matter where they lived across Canada.

The Clovis culture is different than other cultures for two main reasons. First, the Clovis culture spread rapidly all over North America in a relatively short period of time. Secondly, no matter where the people went, they all lived and hunted in much the same ways. Palaeo-Indians in Canada were part of this cultural tradition, proven by the high rate of similarities found in sites across the country. Sites revealed the same tools and spear points, all made by chipping the stone into the desired shape and sharpness. Their physical environment ,or where they lived, was also alike--land that was slowly changing from being covered in glaciers into the grassy tundra and steppe that larger animals preferred. The location of archaeological sites proves that similar factors were used in choosing where a group would settle.

2. Life revolved around the hunt

As noted before, Palaeo-Indians are primarily classified as "big-game" hunters because of the evidence they left behind. The importance of hunting influenced where they would settle, the materials used in making tools and points, and how they intereacted with each other.

Finding the right site for a settlement, that was usually seasonal, was a critical factor in the survival of the Palaeo-Indian culture. There were important points to consider when looking for a good site:

  • Is it close to the migration routes of food sources like caribou and bison?
  • Does it provide a good view of the surrounding area to help track movement of the herds?
  • Does it provide protection from natural elements, like the sun or winter storms?
  • Is it close to reliable sources of other needed materials, like water and stone for making tools?
These factors were essential in providing the necessary resources for daily life and the survival of the band as a whole. Missing the seasonal migrations would place the group in jeopardy because no food meant little chance of surviving.

Another important element was finding the proper materials for making good tools and hunting weapons. Good stone sources were needed for efficient tool making, because it took large amounts of time and effort to produce proper tools and points. Using brittle stone would waste time and energy. Using too much time to make points and tools would take away from the time needed to hunt for food. Using faulty weapons could also place the hunter in jeopardy. When archaeologists compared the distance between settlement sites to quarry sites, they found that some groups of Palaeo-Indians had to be more mobile than others. On the Plains there is evidence that some bands traveled up to 300 kms to their favourite quarries. Some archaeologists have suggested that different stone materials were used for "territorial identification"--similar to how tartan patterns represent different Scottish clans today.

There is also evidence that groups of Palaeo-Indians worked together to benefit everyone. It is believed that Palaeo-Indians lived in bands of 45 to 75 people, using simple dwellings that were big enough to hold one family group. These dwellings might have been made of wood frames covered in caribou skins or any other materials that would protect them from the elements. Usually these groups lived on their own, but during key hunting periods, there is evidence that member families of a band or a number of bands would come together to hunt a herd of caribou or bison and share their success.

*There is a possibility of including here the fact that Folsom points were also found here, primarily in Alberta/Prairie provinces. Since I only have scanty information from a website on this point, and little info on Plains history in general at this point, I won't include it until I have more info.

In the latter stages of Palaeo-Indian culture, changes in the climate affected different regions in Canada in various ways, depending on the physical environment. As a result, people refined their way of life and their tools to adapt to their new surroundings and resources. These local adaptations are what archaeologists use to trace different groups of ancient peoples as they changed and divided over thousands of years into the different groups of native peoples found in modern Canadian history.


Most of the evidence of Palaeo-Indians in Canada comes from archaeological sites in eastern Canada, especially in southern Ontario. Currently there is increased archaeological activity and interest in the foothills of the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains. As more information is found, it will help to broaden our understanding of these ancient hunters.

Some sites in Ontario are difficult to find because the size and shape of the Great Lakes has changed over time. Settlements that were once by the shoreline are now either underwater or miles away on an ancient shoreline. Similar difficulties are found in the Maritimes where the rise in ocean levels over time has covered or eroded away possible evidence.

Palaeo-Indian archaeological sites can be classified in one of four ways:
1. habitation (where evidence shows that settlement occurred, usually short-term)
2. quarry-workshop (site of stone sources and/or tool manufacturing)
3. kill-butchering (where animal bones and hunting equipment are found)
4. stray point (where spear points are found without any clues as to how they got there)

Debert Site (near Truro, NS)
Before the Debert site was dug, it was believed that the Maritimes were covered by glaciers during the time of the Palaeo-Indians. However, dates from charcoal found at the site proved that ancient peoples were in the area around 10,600 BP. Archaeologists also found that Debert was an important settlement site complete with over 4000 stone artifacts and evidence about the size of tents. For more about the story of the Debert site, try this website provided by the Nova Scotia Museum:
Archaeology in Nova Scotia: Debert Palaeo-Indian Site

Archaeologists are piecing together evidence that shows the earliest human settlements in North America may have been thousands of years before the appearance of Palaeo-Indians. It is possible that ancient peoples were living as far east as northern Yukon, in the glacier-free zone we now call Beringia, before 10,000 BC.

Parts of Beringia are now underwater which makes it difficult to find more evidence about the people who lived there. Only a few scattered sites with limited artifacts have been found. This makes it difficult to determine when these early peoples came or to get an accurate picture of their lives Archaeologists have an extremely large area to search and could easily miss possible sites. Climate conditions have disturbed ancient sites making it difficult to date them accurately. However, there has been enough archaeological evidence found to prove that people did live here during the last Ice Age.

The bulk of evidence has been found in eastern Beringia, central and northwestern Alaska and northern Yukon. Key sites in Alaska include Dry Creek, Healy Lake, and Akmak, where the earliest evidence has been dated to 10,500 BP. In northern Yukon, artifacts have been found in sites along the Old Crow River and perhaps the most important and oldest recognized site is the Bluefish Caves near the community of Old Crow. Jacques Cinq-Mars, lead archaeologist at the Bluefish Caves, feels they may have been used as a hunting camp at various times between 25,000 BP and 10,000 BP.

There are two indications that ancient humans lived in these areas so long ago. The first are bones that have cut marks or butchering marks that were obviously made by human hands. The second are tools, some made of rock not found in the local area. In all the Palaeo-Arctic sites two types of tools were most commonly found: burins and microblades. Burins are stones with one end made into a sharp edge, like a simple chisel, used to gouge and shape wood and bone. Microblades are small, thin, straight flakes of stone that look like razor blades. Microblades were chipped from rocks called cores, which were chosen for their size and because they were the perfect type of rock to make blades.

Palaeo-Arctic sites seem to have been located near prime hunting locations. Bluefish Caves, for example, are situated above a river valley with a great view of the surrounding area--perfect for tracking herds of caribou or other animals. Many animal remains have been found, including caribou, horse, mammoth, elk, saiga antelope, bison and muskox.

When put into the context of the evidence found in the overall region, some archaeologists contend that occupation in the region could have been as early as 40,000 BP. However, some of the earlier dates found in Bluefish Caves and other sites in the Old Crow area have not been accepted by all the archaeology community. This is a hot source of debate and will be for years to come. Although the debate over dates may continue, we do know that ancient peoples were living in Beringia during the last Ice Age.

Learn more about Bluefish Caves (near Old Crow, Yukon) from these websites:

A general overview of the site from the
Minnesota State University E-Museum

A more scientific report by one of the archaeologists—Jacques Cinq-Mars, archaeologist with the Canadian Museum of Civilization
The Significance of the Bluefish Caves in Beringian Prehistory

A new method of chipping stone to make projectile points was developed sometime just before 10,000 BP. It is believed that some as yet unknown change in the Palaeo-Indian weapon system caused this development, which is the distinguishing characteristic of the Plano culture. The move from late Palaeo-Indian to Early Plano showed that only the projectile point style changed and spread rapidly across a large geographical territory.

The Early Plano culture was primarily based in the Plains of Canada, with offshoots as far east as the Gaspe Peninnsula and as far northwest as the Peace River Valley of Alberta and British Columbia. Plano was also widespread in the United States, extending south to the Gulf of Mexico. Some tools found in the Canadian Plains were made from stone sources in the US.

Between 10,000 and 8,000 BP, Early Plano culture flourished. It helped that new grassy territory left behind by retreating glaciers could support larger herds of animals such as bison. Although Plano culture was spread over such a wide geographical area, there were regional variations in lifestyle that subtle differences in lifestyle and relationships that helped differentiate neighbouring groups. All these groups shared the common style of chipped-stone points, making the Plano culture easy to identify.


Over time, regional differences in climate and physical environments began to change the Plano way of life, especially in the eastern and northern regions. With the introduction of spearthrower technology around 8000 BP, these changes became permanent.

The spearthrower was a significant new weapon used by hunters. Previously, hunters used thrusting spears and had to be very close to their target to attack, which was extremely dangerous. The spearthrower acted like a slingshot, propelling the spears farther with good accuracy and speed. This meant that hunters could attack large animals from a safer distance and lessen the risk of being injured.

Spearthrower technology came up to Canada from the northern United States, and the distinctive notched projectile points used with the spearthrower soon replaced the lanceolate and stemmed points used by the Plano people. This was especially evident in the Plains and the Rocky Mountain Foothills in Alberta. Plano culture eventually evolved into two cultures: the Early Plains (in the Plains) and Early Shield (in the east and north).

Although a number of Plano archaeological sites have been found, the information is rather limited. The sites currently available are either quarry sites in the east or kill-butchering sites on the Plains. No settlement sites have been found as of yet, so we only have a partial understanding of Plano lifestyle and settlement cycles in Canada. It is assumed that in Plano culture, families would be part of various bands, which would then come together as a larger band for a seasonal hunt, most likely in the fall. However, changes in the physical landscape and erosion make finding more evidence of the Plano culture difficult.

The Early Plano peoples can generally be divided into three regions: Western, Eastern, and Northern.


The main branch of Early Plano culture, Western Plano territory stretched from southeastern Manitoba to the Foothills of the Rocky Mountains, as far north as the Peace River Valley in Alberta and British Columbia. Evidence suggests that a branch of late Palaeo-Indian culture (Folsom) was the direct ancestor of early Western Plano.

Western Plano is usually defined by a series of distinctive projectile points. Agate Basin points, and its variant Hell Gap were used primarily between 10,500 BP and around 9000 BP. Agate Basin points have been found all over Plano territory, while Hell Gap points were limited to the Plains. Around 9000 BP, a new form of stemmed lanceolate projectile points took over, called Alberta points. Sometimes called the "Cody Complex", there were two variants of Alberta points, named Scottsbluff and Eden. Around 8000 BP, another set of lanceolate varieties emerged, called Frederick, Browns Valley, and Jimmy Allen. These were quickly replaced by the notched points and spearthrower system that marked the transition of Early Plano into other cultures--in this area it evolved into the Early Plains culture.

Other than the constant change in projectile points styles, the basic stone tool kit of the Western Plano people was essentially the same as late Palaeo-Indian tools. Bones were also used for needles and sometimes as butchering tools.

Trade and/or contact with other groups was also part of the Western Plano lifestyle. Many projectile points were made from stone obtained from other sources, like North Dakota and Northwest Territories. Evidence also proves that there was some sort of contact with Montana, Wyoming, the British Columbia Interior, and the Rockies in Northern Alberta.

There is not much evidence of housing structures, except for the possible evidence of a small structure measuring 4m by 2m at the Niska site in Saskatchewan. The assumption remains that housing was highly portable, and probably made of materials that would not survive over time.

It is presumed that the Western Plano peoples followed a relatively seasonal-based settlement pattern. They would spend the winter months in forested areas, such as valleys and foothills, and move to the edge of valleys in the spring. The summer was spent in the open Plains, and in the fall a gradual move was made back into the forests, following the bison herds. A communal bison hunt would probably occur at this time. Bison would be driven into traps that occurred naturally in the landscape, such as small gulches, sand dune basins or even snow drifts or thin ice. People would work together to trap, kill and butcher quickly to prevent spoilage. Other food sources that may have been available in the Foothills would be elk, sheep and goats.


A small population of Plano people lived in an area of primarily Boreal Forest and Lichen Woodland environments, which were the preferred landscapes of caribou. The Eastern Plano lived in a virtual sandwich, between glacier ice and glacier lakes to the north, and Early Archaic peoples and forest in the south. Evidence of Eastern Plano can be found in a strip extending from southeastern Manitoba, through Ontario along the north shores of Lakes Superior and Erie, and along the St. Lawrence River to the northern coast of the Gaspe Peninsula.

Eastern Plano archaeological sites that have been found so far are located near or on quarries. One such site at Rimouski dates somewhere between 8000 and 7500 BP. All sites have lots of evidence of the process of tool and projectile point production. The quarries were full of perfect stone for chipped-stone tools and points. Eastern Plano points were chipped like other Plano points, but in a different distinctive style, showing a high level of skill. Visits to the quarry areas was most likely on a seasonal basis. Although other activities took place at these sites, tool manufacture was the primary task. Tools included scrapers and biface knives. Eastern Plano people eventually came in contact with spearthrower technology through the Early Archaic.

The location of the sites found so far also lead archaeologists to assume that Eastern Plano used watercraft of some sort, especially those who lived on some of the islands in the Upper St. Lawrence River. Since there have been no animal remains found, archaeologists also presume from the physical surroundings of the sites that food sources included sea mammals, coastal resources (like seabirds and shellfish), and plants, as well as caribou. Again, there is no definitive information about the housing used by Eastern Plano peoples.

Eventually, the Eastern Plano peoples evolved into the Early Shield culture. The Sinnock site in southeastern Manitoba, which dates around 8000 BP, shows lots of evidence of this transition, as the Eastern Plano shifted and adapted technology and settlement to more of a forest-based lifestyle.


The northern offshoot of Plano culture was found in the northern regions of Western Plano territory, as far north as the Keewatin District in the Northwest Territories and southern Nunavut. Northern Plano peoples adapted to a varied environment of early boreal forest and tundra. As a result, they had a wider variety of tools compared to Western Plano, which included adzes, saws, and scraper-knives. Northern Plano peoples also used heated stones when cooking food, unlike Western and Eastern Plano.

Over time, Northern Plano peoples began to depend more on caribou and less on bison as sources of food. Locations of archaeological sites, such as the Grant Lake site (Keewatin District, NWT), are typically located on caribou crossings along migration routes. Caribou herds would move south to the forests in the winter, right into Northern Plano territory.

Between 8500 BP to 4000 BC, the Early Plateau culture (also known as "Nesikep tradition") lived in central and southern British Columbia, primarily between the Coast and Rocky Mountain ranges.

Early Plateau used three different types of flaked projectile points: triangular, corner-notched, and basal-notched. The atlatl, or spearthrower, was also part of their weapon system. Atlatl weights have been found that would have been attached to the underside of the atlatl and increased the efficiency of the weapon. Microblades were also a popular tool found in early Early Plateau sites, which might indicate an influence from the north.

Early Plateau used a variety of local sources of stone for their tools. In the south, dark basalt from an area near Cache Creek was most often used. There is little evidence that they traded for other stone. In the northwest, Mount Edziza was a favourite source of obsidian for thousands of years. It could be found in archaeology sites up to 800 km away. In the southeast, stone from one of the many quarries in the Kootenay region was popular.

There is not a lot of evidence regarding the food that Early Plateau people ate but we do know they focused on deer, elk, moose, mountain sheep, small animals and possibly bison in the southern regions. An interesting indication of what Early Plateau people had in their diet may come from the discovery of human remains, now known as "Gore Creek Man". This man died in a mudslide approximately 8200 years ago and could be an excellent example of Early Plateau people. A detailed analysis of his remains revealed that he ate mostly land mammals. This confirms that in the early stages of Early Plateau, fish like salmon had not become as important a part of the diet as it would in later generations.

The effects of melting glaciers were still being felt in rivers that were slowly developing into the river systems we know today. The levels of silt and debris flowing through the rivers and streams was high. This prevented salmon and other fish from spawning. However, over time the river systems settled down and provided an ideal environment for fish to multiply. They became an important part of the diet and economy of the local population. The Drynock site near Kamloops shows that by around 7500 BP salmon fishing was beginning to play a larger role in the lives of the Early Plateau. Specialized fishing equipment (like pebble net weights) were found at the Rattlesnake Hill site, indicating that gill nets or seine nets were being used by 5500 years ago.

Not much else is known about Early Plateau life. We do know that by 6000 years ago in the southern interior, heated stones were being used in cooking. Since there is no evidence of housing (like large post holes), there is the assumption that they lived in light and portable tents made of skins or bark that suited their mobile lifestyle.

One major difficulty in understanding early Plateau life is that there are conflicting interpretations of what evidence is available. There is considerable debate over where Early Plateau came from, what relationships they had with neighbouring groups and if whether or not they were related to Early Northwest Interior culture. The other problem is that potential Early Plateau sites that might provide evidence to solve these debates were subject to much erosion and/or burial under layers of sediment. For example, the Drynoch Slide site was discovered when highway construction cut right through it and partially exposed some artifacts. It is buried under 20 metres of accumulated debris, making the rest of the site impossible to uncover.