Chapter 2. Aboriginal Canada before Contact

2.6 Summary

Pre-contact North America was home to a numerous and diverse array of peoples, languages, religions, and cultures. Scientific origin theories such as the Bering land bridge and coastal migration suggest that the ancestors of these groups arrived in the Western Hemisphere at least 14,000 years ago. The origin stories of most of the groups provide another, more allegorical view, stressing the intimate relationship between “the people” and the land in which they lived. Paleo-Indians dominate the history of the period between the great ice ages and the era that began some 8,000 years before now when the Earth entered warmer, more congenial phases called the Archaic and Woodland periods.

The development of plant domestication and the beginnings of organized agricultural activities occurred in this phase, along with an eruption of village and urban settlements. The great classical civilizations of the Americas arose and the centre of this continent was dominated by an extensive urban farming complex. Many groups across North America became horticulturalists and agriculturalists, the latter relying primarily on the Mesoamerican triad of corn, beans, and squash. The surplus of food produced by farming enabled the development of large and complex communities and material cultures, as well as the ability to weather famine and siege more successfully. Regional geography also played a role in shaping groups; for instance, groups on the Plains came to be characterized by a reliance on the buffalo hunt while salmon-dependent communities appeared in the interior of British Columbia, and marine mammal hunters on all three coasts.

The Aboriginal world that Europeans contacted after 1492 was not static. It was in the midst of ongoing change and historical processes. Societies like the Mississippian cultures had peaked and were now looking to new models to survive. Ideas and practices were flowing from one part of the continent to another. Everywhere we look in the Americas we find evidence of modified landscapes — anthropogenic change — that were possible only because these were mostly successful and robust societies. The era of contact has to be placed in the context of a history of change and adaptation, and of continuities as well.

Non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada today (and in the United States) continue to hold many mistaken ideas about pre-contact Aboriginal nations. For example, it is commonly believed that at the time of European arrival, the Americas were vast empty lands occupied by handfuls of people who still acquired their food through hunting and foraging, people who could easily just move along to another hunting ground, and then another and another. The facts are that the Americas were occupied by millions of people, and these people had achieved technological development similar to their contemporaries in Europe, Africa, and Asia and had excelled in many specific areas. Their societies, economies, and cultures did not have enormous gaps that were waiting to be filled by foreigners; they were complete and they made sense.

They did, however, have a number of weaknesses that contact exposed and some newcomers exploited. These shall be considered in the chapters that follow.

Key Terms

agricultural revolution: In the context of the Archaic era, the development of the first farming societies in the Americas.

anthropogenic: Made or modified by humans.

archaeological record: Any evidence regarding past societies and civilizations (Aboriginal or otherwise) that derives from the use of archaeological techniques and methods.

Archaic period: The era described by archaeologists and anthropologists as roughly 10,000-3,000 years BPE.

Aztecs: A Mesoamerican civilization and polity that collapsed in the early 16th century. The Aztecs developed many agricultural techniques and administrative customs that influenced societies around the Gulf of Mexico. Their influence may have spread up the Mississippi River as well.

Before the Common Era (BCE): This term, along with CE, align exactly with the Christian dating system, dividing time approximately 2,000 years ago.

Before the Present Era (BPE): a dating system based on the use of radiocarbon dating, which uses January 1, 1950, as its baseline. Therefore, 10,000 years BPE equals 10,000 years before New Year’s Day, 1950.

Bering land bridge: The land form, made mostly of land that was exposed by falling sea levels, that connected Eurasia and North America between Siberia and Alaska 50,000 to 10,000 years BPE.  A possible route for human migration from Asia to the Americas. Also called Beringia.

Beringia: The open plain of land and glaciers that once filled the current gap between Siberia and Alaska.

buffalo jumps: Sites on the Plains associated with highly coordinated bison hunts conducted by Aboriginal communities.

Cahokia: Thought to be the largest of the Mississippian towns/cities. Located near present-day St. Louis, it is believed to have crested around 1050 and collapsed around 1350.

chiefdom: A form of organization based on a hierarchy of chiefs that followed the leader of the most important group.

Clovis: Named for the archaeological site in New Mexico where it was first identified, the Clovis culture is identifiable by the kinds of projectile heads it produced. 

coastal migration theory: An alternative to the Bering land bridge theory, which posits that the first human arrivals in the Americas arrived by sea, following the arc of the North Pacific icefield and skirting Beringia.

codexes (codices): Scrolls written by Aztec and/or Mayan authors and scribes from the period both before and after the arrival of Europeans.

Common Era (CE): This term, along with BCE, aligns exactly with the Christian dating system, dividing time approximately 2,000 years ago.

contact: The first documented encounter between Aboriginal peoples and Europeans. This is a movable date because first encounters occur in different regions at different times. The contact era for some Arctic peoples, for example, only began in the 20th century.

counting coup: The practice, common among many Aboriginal cultures, of attacking rival groups with the objective of inflicting injury but not necessarily death and thereby acquiring status commensurate with the humiliation meted out to the foe.

diffusion: The transmission of ideas, practices, or beliefs from one society to another.

exotic diseases: Infectious and highly contagious viruses introduced in the proto-contact and contact eras. Aboriginal people had little in the way of natural immunities to diseases they had never before encountered.

grease trails: Trade routes that originated in the pre-contact era in what is now British Columbia, used for transporting oolichan grease, an important indigenous commodity.

hypotheses (plural); hypothesis (singular): Suggested explanations for historical phenomenon, events, or ideas.

little ice age: The term given to a hemispheric downturn in average temperatures that lasted from the 1600s (as early as the late 1200s in some locales) to the 1820s. Much of North America and northwestern Europe was affected.

longhouse: A style of domestic building that typically accommodates an extended family and serves as a storehouse for equipment, food, and other belongings. Longhouses take many forms in Canadian Aboriginal cultures, use different kinds of materials, and may be fixed, movable, or something in-between.

maize: Commonly referred to today as “corn,” a modified crop form of a grass known as teosinte. Maize was first developed by Mesoamerican societies.

Maritime Archaic: A variant on the Archaic tradition. Maritime Archaic cultures were found on the Atlantic coast.

matriarchy: A political system in which authority resides with females.

matrilineal, matrilinear: Familial relations that focus on the mother’s family, with property, status, and clan affiliation being conferred through the female line.

matrilocal: A social system in which married couples reside in or in close proximity to the home(s) of family/parents of the wife.

megafauna: Large pre-contact animals found globally whose modern descendants are considerably smaller.

Mesoamerica: The cultural zone containing some of the largest agricultural and urban civilizations in the Americas prior to contact, Mesoamerica stretches across almost all of Mexico and south through much of Central America.

Mississippian culture: An agricultural, town-centred civilization that thrived from ca. 500-1400 CE. Located at the heart of North America and connected by the river and lakes network to lands from the Rocky Mountains to the Gaspé, the Mississippian culture had a powerful impact on the societies that followed.

mound builders: One of the distinguishing features of the Hopewellian and Mississippian cultures was the erection of large complexes of earthworks.

Mourning Wars: Conflicts associated principally with the Haudenosaunee and impacting virtually all their neighbours. This wide-ranging series of conflicts covered much of what is now southern Ontario and the Ohio Valley. One goal was to acquire captives who would be adopted into the captor’s community so as to replace population lost to epidemics or earlier wars/raids.

oolichan: An anadromous fish prized on the West Coast for its high oil content.

oral tradition:  Generally refers to an account of events that took place in earlier generations and which is transmitted by oral storytelling (as opposed to a written version). Distinctions used to be drawn sharply between oral tradition and oral history, which was regarded as accounts of events within the lifetime of the teller. More recently oral history is equated with oral tradition and has been granted greater respect for its reliability.

Paleo-Indian: The peoples occupying parts of the Americas until about 8000 BPE.

Paleolithic: The period associated with the concept of “Stone Age,” referring to human technological development before extensive use of metals. Dates vary from continent to continent and region to region.

petroglyphs: Images carved into rock.

pictographs: Images painted onto rock and other surfaces.

potlatch: A ceremonial event mounted by most Northwest Coast peoples and many in the interior of what is now British Columbia. It involves the giving away of property at an event marking, typically, a succession, a marriage, or a death. Accumulating goods for an impressive potlatch was an important mechanism for attaining social status for the host and also redistributing wealth through a system of related villages.

post-contact: The years after documented encounters between Aboriginal peoples and Europeans. Post-contact typically describes a relatively short period: although our current society is technically “post-contact” it makes little sense to use the term that way.

pre-contact: The period before first documented encounters between Aboriginal peoples and Europeans. Pre-contact societies may also be proto-contact societies, depending on circumstances.

proto-contact: The period of indirect influence of Europeans on Aboriginal peoples. Some of the effects of contact ran ahead of direct encounters. For example, diseases and/or trade goods might be passed from one Aboriginal community that had experienced face-to-face contact to a great many others that had not.

Southeastern Ceremonial Complex: The religion associated with the Mississippian cultures. Many features of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex were shared with Aboriginal cultures in southern Canada.

sun dance: A renewal ceremony celebrated by many Plains peoples. It was sponsored by an individual who wished to give to his tribe or to thank or petition the supernatural through an act of self-sacrifice for the good of the group.

teosinte: A variety of grass that was modified into maize by Aboriginal peoples of Mesoamerica.

triad: Also called the “three sisters,” the crops of maize, beans, and squash, which were developed in Mesoamerica and diffused across the Americas centuries before contact.

winter counts: A record of events recorded in the form of pictures; associated mainly with Siouan cultures.

Woodland periodThe era described by archaeologists and anthropologists as roughly 1000 BCE-1000 CE.

Short Answer Exercises

  1. What kind of records exist that provide Aboriginal accounts of the past?
  2. What are some of the limitations of the archaeological record?
  3. What are the principal theories and/or explanations that describe the original populating of the Americas by humans? What are the weaknesses and strengths of these theories?
  4. What factors contributed to substantial Aboriginal population growth in the pre-contact era?
  5. What are the limits of using language groups to understand Aboriginal communities in the past?
  6. What are some of the issues involved in estimating pre-contact population numbers?
  7. What are some of the major differences that distinguish the various native peoples of what is now Canada?

Suggested Readings

  1. Mann, Charles C. “1491.” The Atlantic, 1 March 2002.
  2. Neylan, Susan. “Unsettling British Columbia: Canadian Aboriginal Historiography, 1992-2012.” History Compass 11, no.10 (2013): 845-58.
  3. Prins, Harold E.L. “Children of Gluskap: Wabanaki Indians on the Eve of the European Invasion.”  In American Beginnings: Exploration, Culture, and Cartography in the Land of Norumbega, edited by Emerson W. Baker, Edwin A. Churchill, Richard D’Abate, Kristine L. Jones, Victor A. Conrad, and Harald E.L. Prins (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 95-117.


This chapter contains material taken from Native Peoples of North America by Susan Stebbins. It is used under a CC-BY-NC-SA-3.0 unported licence.

This chapter contains material taken from History in the Making: A History of the People of the United States of America to 1877 by Catherine Locks, Sarah K. Mergel, Pamela Thomas Roseman, and Tamara Spike. It is used under a CC-BY-SA-3.0 US licence.

This chapter contains material taken from the Wikipedia page, “The History of the Native Peoples of the Americas/Mesoamerican Cultures/Aztecs“, is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 unported license.

This chapter contains material taken from the Wikipedia page, “Aboriginal Peoples in Canada,” is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 unported license.

This chapter contains material taken from the Wikipedia page, “Population History of American Indigenous Peoples,” is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 unported license.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

2.6 Summary by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book