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Review

People of the Middle Fraser Canyon: An Archaeological History

By Ian Kuijt, Anne Marie Prentiss

November 4, 2013

Review By Douglas Hudson

The authors, from the departments of anthropology at the University of Montana (Prentiss) and the University of Notre Dame (Kuijt), draw on their extensive and recent archaeological work in the interior of British Columbia to construct a story line around the emergence and then abandonment of large villages (of 800 to 1,000 people) about 1,300 to 1,100 years ago in the mid-Fraser region, a territory of the St’át’imc, or Upper Lillooet people, within the Plateau culture area. This is a useful and readable book presented with minimal textual references. Its story line approach provides information specific to the region under discussion and offers a practical technique for writing about archaeology in British Columbia that will lend itself to both introductory and advanced courses in archaeology. It also provides an accessible account of what’s going on in part of British Columbia archaeology.

Chapter 1 is an orientation to the book and an introduction to some general concepts and principles of archaeology and archaeological periods in the Plateau region. The authors explain their use of the illustrations (which involved feedback between the artist and First Nations community members), and the kinds of questions that are associated with Plateau archaeology, the most important of which is explaining the emergence of large village groups. Chapter 2 provides the history of archaeological activities in the Plateau, the key role of earlier archaeological work (e.g., of SFU archaeologist Brian Hayden), and the terms that have become part of the working vocabulary of archaeology.  This chapter is a tour starting about 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, with the authors identifying what they see as key geological events that influenced habitats, resources, and population movements; examining how these events are reflected in the archaeological record of key sites; and critiquing earlier interpretations of these sites. They describe a shift from hunting and gathering to a more sedentary foraging pattern, evidenced by house pits, and they compare these to similar changes on the coast. A model of adaptive strategies underscores the difference between the categories of foragers and collectors, with the latter involving a strategy centered on storage and presented as successful in the changing landscape. Expanding on this idea, Chapter 3 presents archaeological material indicating how groups with the appropriate technology and storage facilities were positioned to take advantage of expanding resources. This chapter extends into the lower Fraser Valley, and the authors expand on what they call “ecological hotspots” — concentrated areas where key resources were available — and where trade and exchange increased between groups that coalesced around key fishing places in the interior. Chapter 3 then shifts from the Fraser River to the Columbia River system and to changing conditions about 2,000 years ago. Large village sites are referenced to these changes and the authors posit different cultural trajectories for the Fraser River Plateau zone versus the Columbia River basin. Chapter 4 takes up the next expansion, in the mid-Fraser region, which is the core of the book. Climate change, habitat change, dependable resources (especially salmon), and technological and social change are linked to present a model of “optimal conditions for intensive habitation by human populations” (86) in the mid-Fraser region 1,500 to 1,600 years ago, which provided the economic foundation for large pit house village sites, three of which (Keatley Creek, Bridge River, Ball site), are presented as case studies to describe the complexities of the cultures of the mid-Fraser region and are reinterpreted in light of recent work. The chapter also notes different archaeological research strategies at the Bridge River and Keatley Creek sites. The archaeological complexity indicated by the mid-Fraser sites is paralleled by the debates over why such large communities emerged (rather suddenly in the authors’ terms), and the special complexities of such communities. This discussion leads into topics such as social inequality, corporate groups, and control over key productive resource locations.

Chapter 5 expands the analysis of ethnographic information, started in Chapter 4, especially on fishing, a key resource in terms of space and time. People were “bound to the seasons and tethered to the landscape and villages” (116). The authors use ethnographic descriptions to revisit the archaeological material identified at Bridge River and Keatley Creek and to understand what is premised as social inequality in mid-Fraser cultures, which they contrast to egalitarian hunter-gatherer models. They draw on the ethnographic writings of James Teit, although in my view their use of the term clan needs clarification. They point to the difficulties of extrapolating, from the ethnographic record, to indications of equality (or inequality) in the archaeological record, and provide suggestions about what the archaeological record might provide in the way of clues about social differences, and whether or not any archaeological markers indicate political connections between villages. This is part of a larger discussion about the complexities of linking social inequality, population pressures (which they call population packing), control of resources, and resource peaks. The end result, though, is that by about 1,000 years ago the key large villages were abandoned in the mid-Fraser, and Chapters 7 and 8 deal with the complex set of factors leading to this and present different hypotheses, ranging from a catastrophic landslide that blocked salmon runs, to a regional decline in salmon runs exacerbated by overexploitation of alternative resources or a concomitant collapse of non-fisheries resources. The authors revisit the Bridge River and Keatley Creek sites to seek answers to these questions and to reveal what the archaeological and ethnographic records indicate about population dispersals and subsequent reoccupation of these sites.

The book includes an appendix on the St’at’imc Language, by Leora Bar-el, as well as references and extensive notes on sources. The illustrations, images, and maps are excellent and add to the readability and appeal of the book. They are well integrated into the text, though the map on 69 has the Vallican site, in the Kootenays, too far south. This book, its contents presented in an easily accessible format for a range of readers, is an important contribution to BC archaeology.

 

People of the Middle Fraser Canyon: An Archaeological History
By Anna Marie Prentiss and Ian Kuijt 
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012. 256 pp, $90.00 cloth