Arctic Small Tools Tradition

2000 - 800 B.C.

The Arctic Small Tool Tradition, also know as Pre-Dorset, is a circumpolar cultural development which probably originated in Siberia. The oldest sites in North America appear suddenly on the west coast of Alaska about 4,000 years ago. Similarities to the Plano and Northwest microblade traditions, as well as to Siberian Mesolithic blade technologies have caused considerable debate over origins (Irving 1962; Laughlin 1962, MacNeish 1964; Damas 1969). The technology bears no resemblance to the complexes which were previously present in the coastal regions of Alaska.

The warming trend which was still evident at this time may have assisted in the rapid movement of people across the High Arctic. Within a few centuries, these early Native peoples expanded throughout the circumpolar region as far as Greenland, inhabiting the larger islands and coastal regions of Hudson Bay in the process. Two variants of the early Arctic Small Tools Tradition are found in Canada:

  1. Independence I, which is found in the High Arctic, and
  2. Pre-Dorset, which is found in the Low Arctic islands and mainland.
The Pre-Dorset component is by far the most widespread. Although most of the well-defined Pre-Dorset sites are located on the Hudson Bay coast, some inland resources may also have been exploited on a seasonal basis.

After 1500 B.C., the climate began to cool, and vegetative patterns and animal habitat shifted south in response to this change. As the Native people of the Subarctic Shield Archaic followed suit, Pre-Dorset peoples occupied the abandon interior land. However, by 800 B.C., all evidence of them disappears.

The story of Arctic Small Tool tradition in Manitoba, represented by the Pre-Dorset occupation, is significant in that the sites represent the most southerly occupation of this culture. Giddings (1953) first identified it in northern Manitoba. The Thyazzi Site on the North Knife River was later tested by Nash in 1965 and assigned to an early to mid-Pre-Dorset occupation on the basis of the lithic assemblage (Nash 1969:48). Subsequent research of the coastal regions at Churchill, identified Arctic Small Tools Tradition at Twin Lakes and the Seahorse Gully Site on the Churchill West Peninsula.

Technology and Subsistence

The Arctic Small Tool tradition, in general, is characterized by small, delicately-crafted projectile points, blades and burins which are generally no more than 5 cm in length. and accordingly termed microlithic. Pre-Dorset microblades are particularly small in comparison to Independence I examples and appear to be the result of a better developed technology that originated in western Alaska. Other significant tools which first appear during this cultural occupation include the bow and arrow and socketed toggling harpoon. While this latter, effective tool is considered to be the distinctive feature of the Pre-Dorset people, it may have been invented by Native people of the Maritime Archaic. Conversely, the bow and arrow, which has become the hallmark of Native people was probably introduced by Pre-Dorset groups prior to the Woodland Period (200 B.C. - A.D. 1750), when this weapon became prevalent throughout the continent.

The coastal location of many of the sites suggests that boats were used. At Churchill, the Seahorse Gully Site, which represents the largest excavated Pre-Dorset occupation in Manitoba was located a rocky archipelago in the ancient Tyrrell Sea in the present Hudson Bay region. Summer access to this site would have required water craft, although faunal remains suggests a late winter camp (Meyer 1977).

Settlement and Social Organization

The size and settlement pattern of Pre-Dorset sites suggest sizable populations and the re-use of the campsite over several seasons. Oval and circular dwellings are indicated by rings of boulders probably were used to hold down the edges of a tent (Petch 1995). Charcoal and burnt bone found in the interior of the tent ring indicates that the shelter was heated with a central fire. As well circular soapstone dishes may have been used as lamps or heating vessels.


Little is known about the spiritual and artistic realm of the Pre-Dorset people. The high degree of craftsmanship that is demonstrated in the projectile points, harpoons, and soapstone dishes suggests substantial technical skill and aesthetic sensibility.

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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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