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Late Archaic

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The Shield Archaic and Old Copper Culture (3,000 to 1,000 BCE)

Two cultural traditions germane to the prehistory of Isle Royale are recognized for the Archaic stage: the Shield Archaic and the "Old Copper Culture." Characteristics that distinguish these from the earlier Plano tradition include a more diversified material culture, a broader subsistence base, and larger populations. Fitzhugh (1972:1) has characterized the Archaic stage in eastern North America as having "widely flung and locally variable expressions." Such is the case with the Superior basin cultures among which can be seen similarities in overall patterns of subsistence and organization, as well as contrasting stylistic expressions.

Some of the differences may be attributed to local variability in environmental factors that afforded variability in the ways in which archeological cultures adapted or responded to their environment. Other differences may result from nonenvironmental factors that have more to do with the evolution of culture and society than they do with environmental constraints. Whatever the causes of dissimilarity, there is ample evidence for interaction among prehistoric groups seen in the long-distance movement of raw materials, including copper, across cultural boundaries. The Late Archaic substage witnessed an intensification of local subsistence strategies that gave structure to the relationships among neighboring groups, thus facilitating exchange of both goods and information.

The Shield Archaic occupied an area on the Canadian Shield from Keewatin District to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia (Wright, 1972). The distribution of Shield Archaic sites suggests extensive use of watercraft and primary exploitation of moose, caribou, fish, and beaver. Bone preservation on Shield sites is generally poor and the food resources are inferred from locational data. In the material culture of the Shield Archaic one finds no clearcut stylistic patterns, but rather an array of small utilitarian tools made of locally available resources.

Disagreement exists regarding the pedigree of the Shield Archaic. Wright (1972) postulates that cultural evolution in the Canadian Shield occurred as an in situ transition from Plano to Shield Archaic to Laurel. According to Buchner (1979) the definition of the Shield Archaic is much too large and inclusive, and it is likely that it includes a number of smaller units which thus far have fallen outside of our ability to identify them. Buchner also believes that the origins of Laurel lie not with an indigenous Archaic population, but came instead from south of the boreal forest. In either case, the archeological identification of Shield Archaic and the discrimination between it and aceramic Woodland assemblages have been difficult owing to the longevity of stone tool forms that clearly began in the Archaic and continued into the Woodland stage.

The second Archaic archeological culture is equally unpopular with respect to its title and uncertain with respect to its meaning. The Old Copper Culture, Old Copper complex, or simply Old Copper, began as early as 3000 BCE and continued to around 1200 BCE (Stoltman, 1986). The geographical distribution of Old Copper has its heart in northeastern Wisconsin, proximate to the copper districts of Keweenaw and Ontonagon on Lake Superior's south shore. Artifacts attributed to Old Copper are found well away from this core, however, and extend around the west end of Lake Superior, into the Lake Michigan basin, into the northern reaches of the midwest riverine area, west to the plains periphery, and east as far as the Ottawa River between Ontario and Quebec (Mason, 1981).

The diagnostic artifact forms are fashioned of copper and represent the most varied assortment of copper items at any time in Upper Great Lakes prehistory. Only during the Middle Woodland in the Hopewell culture and later in Mississippian culture does copper working assume comparable proportions, although in much different expressions. Archaic artifacts include large (by Terminal Woodland standards) spear heads, knives, gaffs, and adzes, as well as an array of forms more familiar later in time, such as awls, tubular and discoidal beads, and hooks (Wittry, 1957).

(Clark, 1995)

Isle Royale National Park

Last updated: April 19, 2021