Avonlea Phase

A.D. 500 - 800

I go to kill the buffalo.
The Great Spirit sent the buffalo.
On hills, the plains and woods.
So give me my bow; give me my bow;
I go to kill the buffalo .
Sioux Song (from Freedman 1988:50).

For a limited time, another distinct Aboriginal Plains culture, Avonlea (A.D. 500-800), co-existed with Besant-Sonota on the prairies and reflected a similar subsistence strategy. Both peoples relied on the bison and used pounds and jumps. Besant-Sonota groups continued to use the atlatl for hunting, while the Avonlea utilized and developed the new bow and arrow technology. The finely crafted side-notched Avonlea points are much smaller and thinner than Besant or Sonota forms and represent a clearly distinct tradition. Avonlea people restricted their movements mainly to southern Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Their presence in Manitoba is concentrated primarily along the western edge of the province, where they are often found along with Beasant-Sonota tools.

Environmental Setting

Avonlea peoples inhabited the short grass prairie of south and central Saskatchewan, Alberta and western Manitoba. The Avonlea sites in Saskatchewan and Manitoba indicate a seasonal dependence on fish and small game as well as bison (Landals et al, 1995:18; Bryan 1991:121). The locations of many Avonlea sites in riverine environments and the lack of bison remains at some of these sites supports this hypothesis (Smith and Walker 1988).

The arrival of the people who used the Avonlea tool kit is a source of some debate. Some archaeologists maintain that Avonlea points had their origins in the Mississippi Valley. Others believe that their pottery styles bear similarities to ceramics from the Eastern Woodlands of Manitoba and Minnesota (Nicholson 1987:43), suggesting migration from the east. Still another theory proposes that Avonlea projectile points developed from the earlier Pelican Lake style that was already present on the Canadian Plains, and that no movement of people occurred.

Subsistence and Technology

The small, thin, and delicately crafted projectile points that characterize the Avonlea phase are marked by by side notching and slight concavities at their bases. They have been recovered from only a few Manitoba sites: Moncur Farm, Avery, Miniota, Belleview Plateau, May Grompf, Stott, and the Pas Reserve. Archaeologists believe that these artifacts were the first arrowheads on the Canadian Plains. The use of bows and arrows replaced atlatls for bison hunting, since the arrows were smaller and lighter and therefore easier to carry and the bow allowed for a longer range and greater accuracy and velocity.

The clay pots that are associated with Avenolea culture are of two types, globular and cone shaped. In Saskatchewan and Manitoba the cone shaped forms are the most common, while globular ones are found frequently in Alberta sites. Avonlea pots from Manitoba and Saskatchewan usually have a textured exterior surface which is likely the product of a woven or netted fabric impression applied to the damp, pliable clay during the manufacturing process. Punctates, spiral channels and smoothed outside walls were also used (Syms 1977, Bryne 1973). The partly reconstructed vessel recovered from the Miniota Site is believed to have been 39 cm high, conoidal in shape, and net-impressed with a double row of free-flowing rectangular punctates around the rim (Landals et al. 1995:11).

Other artifact types associated with Avonlea include bone tools (Landals et al. 1995:15), end scrapers, wedges, and bifaces.

Bison constituted the primary resource, although fish and small mammal were also exploited. The bison jumps and pounds that were constructed to facilitate hunting required considerable communal organization. At the "classic" Avonlea sites, such as Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and Gull Lake, the cooperation of large groups of people was required to confine stampeding bison within constructed drive lanes. After the kill, the processing of bison products required intensive community work as the meat was butchered , smoked, and dried, and the heavy hides prepared for other uses such as tent coverings, clothing, and tools. The massive bone beds that characterize the Avonlea bison kill sites are highly visible due to natural erosion that has exposed the bones and the sheer numbers of animals slaughtered, a consequence of the efficiency of communal organization and the power of the bow and arrow.

Settlement and Social Organization

Little evidence of the types of shelters is found except for the numerous stone circles which dot the Plains. Coordinated bison drives suggest a high degree of cohesive community organization in which the members of several different bands may have participated.


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