The North-Central Cultural Dichotomy on the Northwest Coast of North America: Its Evolution as Suggested by Wet-Site Basketry and Wooden Fish Hooks

By Croes, Dale R. | Antiquity, September 1997 | Go to article overview

The North-Central Cultural Dichotomy on the Northwest Coast of North America: Its Evolution as Suggested by Wet-Site Basketry and Wooden Fish Hooks


Croes, Dale R., Antiquity


Introduction: the North-Central Northwest Coast cultural dichotomy

For some time researchers on the Northwest Coast of North America have noted a North-Central Coast cultural dichotomy, distinguishing the northern Tlingit-Haida-Tsimshian 'co-traditions' from the central Wakashan/Coast Salish groups. With increasing wet-site perishable data, especially with abundant and complex basketry and cordage artefacts, we are able better to explore the longevity of distinct cultural ethnicities all along the coast. Additionally, wet sites produce frequent examples of perishable fishing equipment, allowing us to examine the evolution of Northwest Coast fishing economies. Over 1300 wooden-shanked fish-hooks have been recovered from Northwest Coast wet sites, representing fishing practices for at least three millennia. These subsistence-related artefacts, maybe less sensitive to ethnicity studies than is basketry, probably reflect the evolution of broader economic trends along the entire coast.

This study explores presently available wet-site data from North and Central Northwest Coast sites from two analytical perspectives:

* the degrees of stylistic continuity of the complex basketry/cordage artefacts recovered which appear to reflect ethnic continuities within the North and Central regions; and

* the comparison of procurement-related artefacts, and especially wooden fish-hooks, that may reflect differences and similarities in economic evolution through time between the two major coastal regions [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED].

The dichotomy's history

Ethnographically, Wissler was the first to describe the Northwest Coast Culture Area in modern terms (1914; 1917). He set the stage for future comparisons by stating: 'the art, social, and ceremonial traits of the north all thin out as we move southward' (1938: 231). Kroeber (1939: 169) several times points out that the population density is greater to the south, while expressing his belief that a greater complexity is found in the north. Using 292 variables, Jorgensen produced dendrograms of overall similarity between Northwest Coast cultures demonstrating the northern Tlingit-Haida-Tsimshian cluster as relatively separate from the rest of the Northwest Coast (1980: [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 4.3 OMITTED]). In tests comparing economic similarity, the northern Tlingit-Haida-Tsimshian and Kwakiutl groups form their own cluster (1980). This pattern is an important reference point when comparing wet-site subsistence-related artefacts since similar economic practices seem to cross-cut ethnically distinct historic groups. Possibly economic patterns reflected in procurement artefacts can be explored through considerable time-depth with wet-site perishable artefacts. The basketry/cordage artefacts have been used to argue for ethnic continuity, while the kinds of wooden fish-hooks may demonstrate overlap of procurement practices between distinct cultural groups through time. The wet-site artefacts may be one of our best means to test both ethnic continuity patterns and the sharing of subsistence practices between cultural groups.

Environmentally, a contrast has frequently been noted between North and Central regions as well, with resources generally declining in abundance and diversity on a Central-to-North gradient (Suttles 1962), especially with respect to terrestrial productivity (Schalk 1981). However, the availability and abundance of general aquatic resources are fairly consistent. This pattern again adds to the overall importance of comparing wet-site fishing procurement equipment through time, since use of the aquatic resources should be relatively consistent from the Central into the North coast.

Linguistically, Greenberg created a tripartite division of native North American languages, with two - Na-Dene and Amerind - well represented on the Northwest Coast (1987). In part, these basic language groups link with the North (Na-Dene: Athapaskan, Tlingit, Haida) and Central (Amerind) dichotomy on the Northwest Coast. …

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