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A Journey to a New Land

First people
Multimedia Library

Glossary

A

Abrader

A stone tool usually made of sandstone or limestone, used for grinding, shaping and polishing.

Agate Basin Complex

An archaeological culture that dates to about 10,500-10,000 years BP in the southern part of North America and somewhat later in northern regions. Sites are characterized by a distinctive lanceolate point, scrapers, and bone needles.

Archaeological Culture

A recurring set of archaeological remains that are consistently found together and are assumed to have been produced by a single culture group or a “people”. It is important to remember, however, that archaeological cultures are defined by present-day archaeologists. The people who made and used the artifacts would probably not have defined themselves and their “culture” in the same way.

Archipelago

A chain or cluster of islands that are formed tectonically

Artifact

Any object that has been made, modified or used by humans.

Assemblage

All of the artifacts and features found at an archaeological site that are associated with one another and with a single occupation.

B

Beringia

A land bridge that connected Alaska and Eastern Siberia at various times during ice ages.

Biface

A stone tool that has been flaked on both faces.

Boreral Forest

A humid subarctic forest region where the plant life is dominated by evergreen trees such as spruce and fir. This region begins just south of the arctic tundra and is the most northerly zone in which trees can survive.

BP

Before Present. A term used by Archaeologists and Geologists to describe the age of a dated sample. Because the 'present' continues to change, standard practise is to set the start point at January 1st 1950 and count backwards.

Burin

A chisel-like implement used for carving or engraving.

C

Carnivore

A meat-eating animal.

Chert

A fine-grained sedimentary rock rich in quartz and usually light in colour. Chert is similar to flint, and was often used in the manufacture of stone tools.

Clovis

Clovis

(a) A fluted, lanceolate stone spear point made by early hunter-gatherers who lived in central and southern North America about 11,500 years BP. Clovis points are usually fairly large, about 7–12 cm long and up to 3-4 cm wide. They have a concave base and a longitudinal groove, or flute, running about halfway up the point from the base.

(b) The archaeological culture that made and used the Clovis point. Other stone tools associated with Clovis sites are scrapers, blades, chopping tools and some bone tools.

The Clovis culture is accepted by most archaeologists as the earliest widespread human occupation of North America.

 

Complex

A recurring collection of artifacts and elements that are found at archaeological sites within a particular geographic location and time span, and which may represent a common culture.

See Archaeological Culture

Composite tool

Any tool that is made of more than one type of material, such as an axe with a wooden handle and a stone blade.

Context

The position and immediate environment of archaeological artifacts and features. This includes the material in which the artifact is found (gravel, sand, mud), its horizontal and vertical position within that material, and its association with other artifacts and features.

Coprolite

Fossilized fecal matter. An invaluable tool in determining the diet of past animals and people.

Cordilleran Ice Sheet

The mass of ice that covered present-day British Columbia and northern Washington State during the last ice age. It extended from the Pacific Ocean in the west to the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, and from northern Washington to southern Alaska.

Core

The piece of stone from which tools such as blades and flakes are produced.

Cultural Layer

Artifacts, sediments and other materials that were produced and deposited by human activity and that accumulated over a discrete time period.

D

Debitage

All of the waste material, such as stone chips and flakes, produced during the manufacture and repair of stone tools. Debitage is often the most common artifact found on prehistoric sites, and can be studied to determine the type of flint knapping techniques used by the toolmaker.

Denali Complex

An archaeological culture found in central Alaska dating to about 10,500-8,000 years BP. Artifacts common at Denali Complex sites include microblades, wedge-shaped cores, burins, and bifacial points.

Diatom

Microscopic single-celled algae that grow in fresh and marine water, and can be identified to species from fossil skeletons. Diatoms are useful paleoenvironmental indicators, as each species inhabited a different environment.

Dyuktai Culture

(D’uktai) An early archaeological culture of northeast Siberia, dating between about 30,000 - 11,000 years BP. Sites are characterised by the presence of biface points, choppers, microblades and wedge-shaped microblade cores. The Dyuktai Culture is considered by some archaeologists to be ancestral to the Clovis culture of North America.

E

Eustatic

Global adjustment in the total volume of sea water contained within the oceans’ basins caused when precipitation becomes trapped in glaciers.

F

Fauna

All of the animal life in a geographic region or a geologic time period.

Feature

A non-portable object at an archaeological site that was created or modified by humans, such as a hearth or a wall. Features are often visible today only as disturbances in the soil. For example, soil colour, texture and composition may be different than the surrounding soil.

Flake tool

A piece of stone that has been removed from a larger stone core and then used as a tool. It may be further shaped or sharpened, or used as is.

Fluted Point

A stone projectile point from which a flake has been removed from one or both faces, from the base to about 1/3 of the way up the point, creating a central groove or channel that makes it easier to attach the point to a shaft.

Foothills Erratics Train

A train of boulders (erratics) more than 600 kilometres long, that runs along the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains in southern Alberta. These rocks were deposited by slow-moving glacial ice and contain clues that have helped scientists to understand the movements of the ice sheets that covered Canada during the ice age.

The source of the rock is an area near Mount Edith Cavell in Jasper Park. Thousands of years ago, these large stones fell onto the surface of the Cordilleran ice sheet during a landslide, and then were slowly carried by the ice sheet outward onto the Plains. When the ice melted, a long train of boulders was left behind.

Forb

Any herbaceous, broad-leafed plant, other than grass. Commonly found in open areas such as meadows or prairies.

G

Glacial Maximum

The time period and geographic location of the greatest advance of glacial ice during an ice age. The Late Wisconsinan Glacial Maximum occurred between about 20,000-18,000 years ago, but the timing of the glacial maximum varies somewhat from one region to another.

Glacial till

Unsorted sediments ranging in size from clays to boulders that have been carried and deposited by glacial ice.

H

Haida Gwaii

A group of islands located near the northwest coast of British Columbia, Canada. Also called Queen Charlotte Islands.

Haplotypes

A combination of certain forms of genes grouped together on the same chromosome that are transferred together, from one generation to the next.

Herbivore

An animal that eats only plants.

Holocene

The present geologic time period. The Holocene extends from 10,000 years ago to the present.

I

Isostacy

Sea level changes that result from the addition or removal of weight from the earth's crust

Isostatic Depression

The sinking of the earth’s crust, usually caused by the weight of glacial ice.

K

Karst

A region of limestone containing many underground passages, sinkholes and cavities that are created by the dissolution of the limestone in groundwater.

Kayak

Traditionally, a small canoe constructed with a light wooden frame that is covered with animal skins; propelled by a double-bladed paddle.

L

Lanceolate

Tapering to a point, like a spear. Sometimes called leaf-shaped.

Language Groups

A group of Languages descended from a common ancestor. Sometimes called a language family.

Last Glacial Maximum

The time when ice sheets were at their maximum extent, about 20,000 years ago.

Late Wisconsinan Glaciation

The last glacial advance of the Wisconsinan Glaciation, lasting between about 25/23,000 – 10,000 years BP.

Laurentide Ice Sheet

The mass of ice that covered most of present-day Canada (except British Columbia) and the northern United States during the Late Wisconsinan Glaciation. At its maximum, this very large ice sheet covered an area of more than 13 million square kilometres.

Linguistics

The scientific study of naturally occurring language.

Lithic

Relating to or made of stone.

M

Maritime Adaptation

A way of life that relied on the utilization of resources from the sea. People with a maritime adaptation tended to live near the ocean, were able to construct and use boats, and obtained a significant portion of their food from fish, shellfish and other marine resources.

Megafauna

The large-bodied animal species (over 45 kg. or 100 lbs.) that flourished during the Pleistocene, but rapidly became extinct about 10,000 years ago. Some of the megafauna species that inhabited North America during the Pleistocene were the mammoth, mastodon and giant sloth.

Microblade

A very small narrow stone tool, usually between 5-11 mm wide and 15-45 mm long. Microblades were often used in the manufacture of composite tools such as knives or points. For example, a sharp knife could be constructed by inserting several microblades end to end in a length of slotted bone or antler.

Midden

A refuse mound or concentration of debris from human occupation; midden contents can include broken pottery, ashes, discarded shells and animal bones.

Moraine

A landform made up of rocks and sediments that have been transported and deposited by a glacier.

N

Nenana Complex

The earliest known sites of human occupation in south-central Alaska; sites are dated to about 12,000 to 10,500 years BP. Most Nenana Complex sites are found along river valleys, and have a good view of the surrounding landscape. Nenana Complex sites are characterized by the presence of small bifacial projectile points and the absence of microblade technology.

O

Obsidian

A volcanic glass, usually black in colour; frequently used to make stone tools because it produces an extremely sharp cutting edge.

P

Paleoenvironment

The environment of a former period of geologic time, including the climate, plant life, air water, minerals, organisms, etc.

Paleontology

The science that studies extinct animals and plants, through the study of the fossil record.

Paleosol

“Old soil”; a soil that formed in the past and is usually buried beneath more recent sediments and soils.

Palynology

The study of fossil and living plant spores and pollen. Pollen is protected by a tough outer covering and it often preserves in the archaeological record for very long periods of time. Pollen evidence can assist palynologists in reconstructing ancient environments.

Patagonia

A geographic region containing the southern most portions of South America

Pebble Tool Tradition

A cultural tradition found at early sites on the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America, dating between 10,000 – 9,000 years BP. Sites are characterized by the presence of unifacial pebble tools, leaf-shaped bifaces and other flaked stone tools, and an absence of microblade technology.

Periglacial

An area that borders on a glacier.

Physical Anthropology

The study of past people through their physical remains, often called biological anthropology.

Pleistocene Epoch

A geologic time period lasting from 1.8 million years ago to 10,000 years ago. This period is characterized by repeated cycles of extensive global glaciation, or ice ages, interspersed with warmer interglacial stages.

Posthole

A hole that has been dug into the ground to contain a pole or post. Postholes are often visible today only as discolourations in the soil. Sometimes called a post mold.

Pre-Clovis

The name given potential sites and cultures that may have existed before recognizable Clovis culture.

Prehistoric

The time period before written records were kept. Since writing was introduced in different geographical regions at different time, the dividing line between “history” and “prehistory” varies from region to region.

Proboscidean

A very large mammal with tusks and a trunk, such as an elephant or mammoth.

Projectile Point

The sharp tip that is attached to a weapon such as an arrow, spear or dart, usually made of sharpened and shaped stone or bone.

Q

Quartzite

A very hard metamorphic rock consisting of interlocking quartz crystals, which was often used in the manufacture of stone tools.

Queen Charlotte Islands

A group of islands located near the northwest coast of British Columbia, Canada. Also called Haida Gwaii.

R

Radiocarbon Dating - The Method

The radiocarbon dating method was developed in the late 1940’s by Dr. Willard F. Libby, who later won a Nobel Prize in chemistry for this work. After its introduction to the scientific community in 1950, it quickly became the method most frequently used to determine the age of organic materials.

Radiocarbon dating is based on the fact that a radioactive isotope of carbon (14carbon) that is present in the earth’s atmosphere is absorbed into the tissues of all organisms while they are alive. After death, the 14carbon starts to slowly decay at a known rate. The length of time that has passed since death can be calculated by measuring the amount of 14carbon that remains in the organism.

Radiocarbon dating can only be used on organic materials such as bone, wood, charcoal, and shell, and has a limit of about 60,000 - 70,000 years. Radiocarbon dates are expressed as “Years BP” or just “BP”. “BP” stands for “Before Present”, but actually means “Before 1950” (the year radiocarbon dating was introduced).

Radiocarbon Years and Calendar Years

When radiocarbon dating was introduced, it was assumed that a radiocarbon year was equal to a calendar year. This was based on the premise that the level of 14carbon in the atmosphere has remained constant over time.

However, when radiocarbon dates were compared with calendar year dates derived from ancient tree-rings, it became clear that radiocarbon years and calendar years are not equivalent. This is because atmospheric concentrations of 14carbon have, in fact, fluctuated over time.

The correction, or calibration, of radiocarbon dates younger than approximately 15,000 years can be accomplished by means of a calculation based on tree ring dates. This calculation results in a “calibrated radiocarbon age” that is usually expressed as “cal BP”.

Raised Beach

A former ocean or lake beach that is located above the present-day shoreline. Raised beaches can be formed when sea levels drop, or when land levels rise.

Red Ochre

A naturally-occurring iron oxide used as a colouring agent. Common uses of red ochre include cave painting, pottery decoration, and body painting. Often used in a ceremonial or ritual context.

Refugium

(pl. refugia) an area of land that remains ice-free and habitable during a period of global glaciation.

Remote Sensing

A set of non-invasive techniques used to locate archaeological sites either under ground or under water, without disturbing the archaeological deposits themselves.

Retouched flake

A stone flake which has been thinned, sharpened or otherwise modified by the removal of small secondary flakes along the cutting edge.

Rockshelter

A shallow, cave-like opening at the base of a cliff.

S

Scraper

A stone flake that has been sharpened on one edge; used for scraping animal skins and in shaping bone or wood.

Sinkhole

A depression in topography, caused by the removal of soil, bedrock, or both, by water.

Sinodonty

A pattern of teeth found in most Native American populations and some Asian populations.

in situ

“In place” or undisturbed. This term is used to describe archaeological materials that are found in the place they were originally deposited.

Steppe

A biome characterized by grassland plains without trees.

T

Talus

An accumulation of rock rubble at the base of a slope or cliff.

Terrestrial Adaptation

A way of life that relied on the utilization of resources from the land, such as large grazing mammals and plant foods.

Tundra

A cold treeless area with permanently frozen subsoil. The ground is usually marshy, and vegetation is limited mostly to mosses, herbs and small shrubs.

Type Site

An archaeological site that contains artifacts in a complete assemblage, and is used as a model for a archaeological culture

U

Umiak

An open boat made of animal skins covering a wooden frame; tends to be larger than a kayak, and is usually paddled by women.

Ungulate

A hoofed mammal, such as a horse, camel or pig.
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