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Athapaskan Migration: The Archaeology of Eagle Lake, British Columbia

By Martin Magne, R. G. Matson

Review By Chris Springer

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 156-157 Winter-Spring 2007-2008  | p. 187-90

Migration is one mechanism that archaeologists have put forward to explain significant change in cultural materials through time. However, due to its linear and rather simplistic explanation of human activity (i.e. material change = wholesale cultural change) compared with more nuanced perspectives that also consider socioeconomic interaction or internal cultural forces, its popularity as an interpretive tool has waned. In addition, problems associated with assigning ethnicity to archaeological material, an unavoidable requirement for accepting a migration hypothesis, further complicate its effectiveness. In Athapaskan Migrations, R.G. Matson and Martin P.R. Magne address the issues of migration and ethnicity in the archaeological record of the Chilcotin region in the southwest interior of British Columbia.

Focusing on sites located in the Eagle Lake area of the Chilcotin, the Eagle Lake Archaeological Project’s main objectives were to determine the arrival date of Athapaskan speakers into the Chilcotin and to situate this event in the spread of Athapaskan languages out of southeastern Alaska. To confront the problem of tracking ethnicity, Matson developed the “parallel direct historical approach” (6-7), a variation on the “direct historical approach,” as a means of identifying cultural rather than simply functional or adaptive changes in the archaeological record. In brief, this approach compares archaeological and ethnographic data from two areas with similar environments, allowing for the environmental factor to be ignored as a variable in an explanation for change. Any changes noted in the archaeological record of one of the areas could then be tested against a migration hypothesis. The Eagle Lake region and the area around the mouth of the Chilcotin River (moc) were chosen as the parallel locations for the project. The former is in the traditional territory of the Chilcotin people, who are Athapaskan speakers; the latter is traditionally Interior Salishan territory. The early archaeological deposits found in both areas are characterized by Plateau Pithouse Tradition (ppt) material culture, which is assumed to be the precursor of the Interior Salishan Shushwap of the moc. However, the recent deposits in the Eagle Lake district change to constitute what Matson and Magne argue reflect the migration of Athapaskans into the Chilcotin. Using the parallel direct historical approach, Matson and Magne build their case for Athapaskan migration into the Eagle Lake area circa 245 ± 34 BP or AD 1645-60. They support their argument by comparing ethnographically described material culture, house types, and settlement patterns with what was noted archaeologically. In addition, they build a chronology derived from radiocarbon samples collected from the three main excavations in the study area and from dendrochronological data based on a local tree ring chronology developed for the project.

 Athapaskan Migrations is an exhaustive study that combines data derived from ethnography, archaeology, linguistics, ethnoarchaeology, and oral tradition, with the greatest emphasis placed on the former two. The findings derived from these sources are presented in five chapters: (1) comparisons of settlement patterns, house types, and material culture; (2) detailed descriptions and summaries of the various surveys used in the analysis; (3) detailed descriptions of the main excavations (the Boyd Site, EkSa 32 [ppt]; the Shields Site, EkSa 13 [ppt]; and the Bear Lake Site, EkSa 36 [Athapaskan]) combined with the dating methods used; (4) the ethnic identification of material from a comprehensive analysis of point types, lithic assemblages, and debitage; and (5) Matson’s and Magne’s reassessment of the larger Athapaskan migrations from the perspective of Eagle Lake. Six companion appendices for the volume are downloadable from an online database at the University of British Columbia and can also be viewed through a link on the University of Arizona’s web site: http://www.uapress.arizona.edu/books/bid1740.htm. 

Generally, Athapaskan Migrations is an excellent volume that puts a much needed spotlight on the issue of ethnicity in prehistoric archaeology. My main concerns are with the uncritical use of ethnographic data that underpin much of the work and also with how the radiocarbon dates are interpreted and presented. With respect to the former, the work is a perfect example of what Cole Harris, in The Resettlement of British Columbia (1997), describes as contributing to an “academic datum plane.” He argues that, given the myriad problems associated with ethnographic information, potentially erroneous descriptions of the distant past can become reified and entrenched in academia as a consequence of the uncritical use of data. I would add that assuming a direct linear correlation between ethnographically described materials and similar materials found in archaeological contexts ignores other viable possibilities for their presence, such as social interaction, trade, or diffusion, all of which question a one-to-one relationship. Oddly, Matson and Magne recognize the issues associated with ethnographies (22) but choose, nevertheless, to see a direct connection between ethnographic and archaeological data and gauge the strength of their archaeological findings against their ethnographic expectation. 

As noted above, there are also problems with the interpretation and presentation of the radiocarbon data pertaining to the arrival of Athapaskan speakers in the Chilcotin (88-89). Two dates are of particular interest here: 505 ± 70 BP (Boyd Site) and 245 ± 34 BP (an average of three Bear Lake Site dates). The former is given as the latest ppt occupation of the study area, while the latter is an earliest estimate of Athapaskan migration into the Chilcotin. The way these dates are interpreted and presented suggests that there was an approximate 250-year hiatus between the latest ppt residence in the Chilcotin and Athapaskan arrival, which strongly supports the ethnic identification of the Bear Lake Site as Athapaskan. Although it is important to have strong temporal control to support the ethnic argument, averaging the three Bear Lake dates only serves to create a false level of precision at the expense of accuracy. It would make more sense to average the dates if, for example, they were derived from the same piece of wood, bone, or feature, but the radiocarbon samples were collected from three separate features. It is not possible to know with certainty if these features are associated with the same event, so it is difficult to understand why they were averaged. On the one hand, Matson and Magne assert that they are not presenting the averaged date as definitively representative of the earliest Athapaskan occupation (89), but, on the other, they refer to it as such with some regularity (90, 102, 159). 

With respect to presentation, all of the radiocarbon data discussed in the book should have been calibrated and presented graphically and/or in tabulated form showing the 2-sigma range. If this were done, the overlap at 1-sigma of the calibrated Boyd Site date (505 ± 70 BP or AD 1390-AD 1453) and the earliest Bear Lake Site date (415 ± 115 BP or AD 1417-AD 1529) would have been apparent, suggesting the possibility that this may not have been an Athapaskan site (I calibrated both dates using the radiocarbon calibration program, Calib. Rev5.0.2, developed by Minze Stuiver and Paula J. Reimer 1986-2005 at http://calib.qub.ac.uk/calib/calib.html, viewed on September 11, 2007). Something more involved than simply replacement through migration may have occurred during this early time frame, such as interaction or some other form of cultural exchange between Athapaskan and ppt ethnic groups. Clearly, Athapaskans did migrate into the Eagle Lake area at some point in the past, given that the Chilcotin people are Athapaskan speakers; however, the timing of their arrival has not been definitively shown in this study. 

Overall, Athapaskan Migrations is a comprehensive and well-researched volume. One small editorial issue I have is with Appendix vi-8, in which the weights and measurements for the side-notched points are tabulated. The text explains that the eighty-seven points used in the various statistical analyses were measured and weighed to the nearest tenth of a millimetre and the nearest tenth of a gram, but there are no decimal points in the tabulated numbers. Also, there are many three-digit and a few single-digit numbers, which suggests different levels of precision than the nearest tenth. This issue and the larger concerns expressed above aside, Athapaskan Migrations is an important contribution to both Athapaskan research and to the study of ethnicity in archaeology. Although the findings presented here are not definitive, they provide a starting point for further research and give some comfort to others who hope to find something more than function and economics in the archaeological record.