Middle Taltheilei

A.D. 200 - 700

The Middle Taltheilei phase represents an easterly movement of early Athapaskan groups across the northern transitional forest/tundra zone. In the tradition of their predecessors, they were caribou hunters and followed a north-south migratory pattern, basing their movements on those of the herds on which they depended. Their expansion may have been due to population increases or perhaps to a volcanic eruption which occurred in northern British Columbia around 800 B.C. Migrations carried them to the southwestern United States, where Athabascan speakers are now represented by the Apache and Navajo, and to the east, reaching Manitoba around A.D. 200.

Environmental Setting

The Subarctic is northern transitional forest and tundra zone within the Churchill Province of the Precambrian Shield. Much of the area is marked by its glacial history. The most common features are eskers, raised ridges formed from debris deposited by meltwater streams. The lowland areas between them support numerous wetlands, which provide a favourable habitat for waterfowl, small water mammals, and moose.

The area is subject to extreme temperature variation. The winters are long, harsh and extremely cold, averaging -28.5° C in January. Summers are short and cool, with brief periods of high temperatures. Frost free days average only 97. This dramatic fluctuation creates a "hurry up" biological process, where vegetation completes its reproductive cycle in a relatively short time span between July and August..

Stunted black spruce (Picea mariana) are the most common tree species. In areas which have not been subject to forest fire, thick mosses and lichens blanket the ground. This array provides forage for the barren ground caribou which seasonally inhabit the area. In the wet lowlands, Labrador tea grows in profusion.

Most Middle Taltheilei archaeological sites have been found at strategic locations where eskers cross rivers or lakes. The Robertson Esker Caribou Butchering Site (EgLw-18) is a good example of Middle Taltheilei hunting strategy. It provides evidence of an planned ambush of a caribou herd crossing the river during the early summer. Tools found in this area include spear points and knives, which were similar to those found further north at another caribou crossing (Nash 1975, Petch 1997).

Caribou ambush

Artist's Impression of a Caribou Ambush


Very little of the Middle Taltheilei material culture remains. Organic material does not preserve well, and as a result, all that archaeologists have to identify this group of people are stone tools, and occasionally, bone. No ceramic vessels have ever been found. The inhabitants may have used animal bladders or birchbark as containers for cooking and storing food.

Many of the stone tools appear to have been fashioned out of local quartz or quartzite, indicating little interaction and exchange with other groups. The tools, which vary from knives to ground stemmed and unstemmed lanceolate points, have been found from the tundra to the transitional forest zone. Gordon (1996) has compared tundra and forest tools and has noted that those of the forest are smaller, suggesting more frequent reworking. This difference may be due to the fact that most of the quarry sources were found hundreds of kilometres to the north on the tundra. There is little archaeological evidence of the use of material other than stone, although bone, antler, and other caribou byproducts were likely exploited.

Subsistence and Settlement

The Native peoples associated with the Middle Taltheilei phase appear to have spent most of their time following the caribou herds, hunting the animals for food, clothing and shelter. In fact, the caribou appear to have provided all the requirements for daily living, in much the same way that the bison did for Plains groups. During the spring, the pregnant female barren ground caribou moved to their calving grounds far north in the tundra around Qaaminarjuak Lake. Once the calves were mobile, the nursing females and young joined the rest of the herd and the caribou began to migrate south in small groups towards their wintering grounds in the northern transitional forest. By the early fall, the herds reached large numbers, often in the thousands. This was the time of the rut, when mature females conceived. The winter was spent in the safety of the forest where the large herd dispersed into smaller units. The similarity of certain tools along esker routes suggests that specific groups of people were using the eskers as highways, following specific herds of caribou, north to south and back again.

Fish are abundant along the many waterbodies, and while there is little archaeological evidence, fishing was very likely present. The modern Sayisi Dene, who are descendants of Taltheilei people, say that fish was always a survival food, especially in winter.

The archaeological remains of settlements are few and far between. It appears that the people lived in small groups, and moved about the landscape following the caribou. Sayisi Dene oral historians compare their people to the wolves who constantly followed the herds. Since people were always on the move, they probably traveled light. As a result, little archaeological evidence accumulated, and it is difficult to infer what kinds of social organization or cultural behaviors were present. The historical Dene make their dwellings from caribou hides. It took 30-50 to make a tent for five people (Petch 1992). Spruce poles were cut and arranged in a conical tipi fashion and the hides were secured to the poles and held in place with a ring of rocks. Smoke from an interior fire hearth escaped through a central hole at the top. Since the people moved around so frequently, they often left their tent frames standing for future use. The oral history record indicates that when people moved north onto the tundra, they took only three spruce poles with them. These may have been dragged by the women as a type of travois.

Dogs were probably used to carry supplies. Once more, the historical record describes a type of saddle which was attached to the dog on which bound household supplies. In the historical period, dogs were traded from the Inuit who occasionally camped at the same locations as the Dene.

The Middle Taltheilei people were most likely walkers rather than canoeists. Samuel Hearne, a Hudson's Bay Company explorer, noted in the 1770s, that the historic Dene thought nothing of walking a hundred miles.

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© 1998 Manitoba Archaeological Society
Web Development: Brian Schwimmer, University of Manitoba
Text and Graphics: Brian Schwimmer, Virginia Petch, Linda Larcombe
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