The Middle Woodland (200 - 300 B.C. to A.D. 700 - 900) period is distinguished from the Early Woodland only in few, relatively minor, aspects. These relate to some aspects of the chipped lithic tool inventory (i.e. changes in projectile point types) and the addition of decoration of increasing elaboration to the pottery. Pottery is found on a greater percentage of sites so may have become more widely used in the seasonal round. There is some evidence of different cultural groups but these differences appear mostly as style differences in pottery and may be more a result of the limited state of knowledge for this time period. These different traditions will be described in greater detail below.

As with earlier periods, the lifestyle of the Middle Woodland people appears to have revolved around hunting, fishing and gathering. There is some evidence, however, that cultivated plants may have first appeared in Ontario at this time in the form of squash or gourds, possibly intended for use as containers rather than as a food. Carbonized squash or gourds have been identified on an Early Woodland site in Michigan and phytoliths, which are a type of microscopic plant remains, from gourds or squash have been tentatively identified on a Middle Woodland site in the Hamilton area.

During the Middle Woodland period, burial ceremonialism appears to have reached its peak. It was at this time that the most exotic items were included in burials and most of the known burial mounds were constructed. These include the Serpent Mound at Rice Lake, a burial mound which was shaped like a giant snake, and the mounds at Rainy River. Much of the elaboration in mortuary ceremonialism is attributed to contact with the Hopewellian people in the Ohio Valley. This influence appears to end around A.D. 250 and after this time burial ceremonialism appears to decrease.

Middle Woodland Burial Mound, Rainy River

The four main Middle Woodland "cultures" or "complexes" referred to above are the Couture complex in extreme southwestern Ontario and adjacent Michigan and Ohio, the Saugeen complex located to the immediate east of the Couture, the Point Peninsula complex extending from around the Grand River east into southern Quebec and the Laurel complex in northern Ontario, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The Point Peninsula Complex

The Middle Woodland Period in most of southcentral and southeastern Ontario is referred to as the Point Peninsula complex, as defined initially from sites in New York State.

The material culture of these people featured more refined ceramics than on earlier sites with decoration occurring as various forms of stamping applied in a number of ways. The most distinctive form of stamping is pseudo scallop shell impressions consisting of a "zig-zag" pattern applied at various angles to the exterior of the vessel. Another kind of stamp is the dentate stamp, which refers to square impressions from a tool probably somewhat like a comb. These stamps were applied either as simple stamps or rocked back and forth. Various kinds of cord impressions also appear but are not as common. There is also some incidence of interior and lip decoration during this period.

The lithic assemblage is not impressive. Projectile points are small and either corner or side notched. Although drills and scrapers are found in Middle Woodland collections, greater emphasis appears to have been placed on the use of unmodified flakes for scraping or cutting. There is also a paucity of ground stone tools in Middle Woodland assemblages. One common feature of the Middle Woodland complexes in at least southern Ontario is the abundance of exotic cherts, especially from Ohio. While these cherts are most noticeable on mortuary sites, they are also a frequent aspect of non-mortuary sites and may have served as status markers even in everyday life.

Point Peninsula people did, in some areas, bury at least some of their dead in burial mounds. The most significant mounds, at least for archaeologists, are those identified in the Rice Lake, Lower Trent River area including the Serpent, Cameron's Point and LeVescounte Mounds. Mound burials have also been reported in the Bay of Quinte area along the south shoreline in Prince Edward County. In most mounds, exotic grave goods including copper and silver pan pipes, marine shell gorgets and exotic cherts have been found. Unlike earlier Late Archaic and Early Woodland interments, it has been suggested that the distribution of exotic goods among the burials provides evidence for some inherited status differentiation among Point Peninsula groups.

A large number of Point Peninsula sites have been identified throughout southern Ontario. Their distribution suggests yet another increase in population within the region and adaptation to the full range of environments is suggested. A settlement pattern consisting of micro and macro bands has been suggested for the Rice Lake area. Unfortunately, despite the large number of reported sites, our knowledge of Middle Woodland settlement patterns remains incomplete.

It would seem that Middle Woodland settlement was focused along the various river systems in their range with particular interest in larger bodies of water such as Rice Lake and the Bay of Quinte. This orientation may have been in part because of their advantageous location with respect to the ease of trade, of items such as copper, silver and perishable goods, with populations to the south. It would seem that the subsistence of early Point Peninsula populations focused largely on deer, as fishing implements are rare and faunal analysis of period sites reveal proportionately greater mammalian remains. However, there may have been a shift in subsistence strategies in Late Point Peninsula with increased interest in fishing as demonstrated at Belle Island in Kingston and in the Hamilton area. Additionally, at least some of these locations are in areas where wild rice was plentiful and may have provided a significant portion of the subsistence requirements.

The Saugeen Complex

The Saugeen complex appears to extend from the southeast shores of Lake Huron and the Bruce Peninsula, around the London area, and possibly as far east as the Grand River. There is some evidence that the Saugeen complex in the Bruce Peninsula may have evolved into the Adawa or Ottawa, as they were later called. The main distinction between the Saugeen complex and the Point Peninsula complex appears to be that Saugeen pots were relatively cruder, both in construction and decoration. Two houses known from one site measure six and a half to seven meters long and four to five meters wide.

It appears that burial treatment of the Saugeen people was similar to the Point Peninsula although no mounds have been excavated as yet. The evidence from one cemetery, however, seems to suggest a band size of about 50 people, with relatively open membership and no indications of status differences.

The Couture Complex

The Couture Complex appears to have been confined, in Ontario, to the area immediately around Lake St. Clair and the western end of Lake Erie. The distinctive feature of this complex appears to be pots decorated by various forms of cord impressions and a high frequency of lithics imported from Ohio. Treatment of burials is not well known because of the destruction, either through development or "pot-hunting", of many sites. There is some suggestion, however, that natural sand knolls or dunes were used rather than artificial mounds.

The Laurel Complex

The Laurel culture appears to have been the first pottery using people of Ontario north of the Severn-Trent water system except, of course, for the Early Woodland peoples in the Ottawa Valley. The Laurel culture also extends into Minnesota and Wisconsin. Ceramics were decorated by a variety of stamping techniques including punctates which are relatively deep, single impressions, sometimes producing a boss or raised node on the opposite side of the vessel wall. Projectile points appear to be somewhat like those of the later parts of the Archaic but were slightly smaller and more triangular in shape. Use of native copper seems to be confined to the production of copper awls and beads.

Archaeological sites in northern Ontario have provided archaeologists with as much or more information about the Middle Woodland people as those from southern Ontario. Evidence of houses have been found on several sites. At one site near Kenora, three houses appear to have constituted the entire settlement. These houses were formed from saplings stuck into the ground, tied together at the top, and probably covered with bark. They measured about six meters long and four meters wide and had two central hearths. They were placed side by side with doors facing east so the morning sun could shine through and they shared a common "courtyard". In the Cree culture of the 1800s it was considered good luck for hunters to be greeted by the rising sun each morning.

Mound construction appears to have been as important a feature of the Laurel as it was for the Point Peninsula. These sites were located at rapids or falls where sturgeon come to spawn and are easy to capture. The burial ceremonies may therefore have coincided with the spring spawning of these fish. The nature of the mounds and the artifacts contained within them indicate direct or indirect contacts with Adena and Hopewell cultures to the south.

Terminal Middle Woodland

Around A.D. 700 a distinctive change appears to have occurred in southern Ontario. Around the eastern end of Lake Ontario and the western end of Lake Erie, a "Tradition" known as the Princess Point Complex appears while west of Toronto, primarily in the Kingston area, a similar culture known as the Sandbanks Complex occurs.

Characteristic of this time period were distinctive changes in pottery, both in decorative styles and method of construction. Earlier pottery was decorated by dentate stamping, pseudo-scallop shell stamping and cord impressing. Decoration during the Terminal Middle Woodland period was most commonly produced by a stick or paddle wrapped with a cord. More important were changes in the method of construction of the vessel. Earlier pottery was made by winding coils of moist clay into the shape of the vessel and then smoothing the coils together. The later pottery appears to have been made from masses of wet clay which were worked into shape, probably using a basket or bag as a support or form. Evidence in support of this hypothesis is seen in the fabric or woven cord impressions on the exterior surface of pots. This produces pots which are relatively seam-free.

Most importantly, it was during the later part of the Middle Woodland period that corn and possibly tobacco, first appear. While the first uses of corn were possibly somewhat experimental and probably only a minor addition to the hunting, gathering and fishing lifestyle, corn horticulture gained increasing importance over time, allowing greater security from winter starvation, higher population densities and more permanent settlements. It is not yet established whether the timing of the introduction of corn and the breakdown of long distance trade networks is in any way related to the abandonment of the large ceremonial sites in Ohio, which also occurred about this time.

Aside from the probable introduction of corn and tobacco during this period, subsistence patterns appear to be largely a continuation from previous periods. The only noteworthy trend of this period appears to have been an increasing reliance on fishing with more sites being located on lake shores or large rivers, especially in the eastern region.

The changes distinguishing the Late Middle Woodland period may be of particular importance for understanding the later events of Ontario's prehistory and the distribution of different First Nations groups during the early years of European contact. To understand this it must be understood that when the first Europeans came to the lower Great Lakes region they noted that this area was occupied by people who spoke variations of Iroquoian languages and had a distinctive and somewhat homogeneous lifestyle. The only other groups who spoke similar languages were the Cherokee, Susquehannock and Tuscarora from much further to the south. Surrounding the various Iroquoian speaking groups were diverse groups of people who spoke various Algonquian languages. Most anthropologists, especially Linguists (those who study languages) believe that the Great Lakes area was originally populated by Algonquian speaking people and that Iroquoian speaking people migrated into the area some time in prehistory.

One current theory among Ontario archaeologists is that the Late Middle Woodland, Princess Point, peoples of the Niagara Peninsula and neighbouring areas were an immigrant group who brought the beginnings of corn horticulture with them. These people would have been the first Iroquoians since it is currently accepted that this late Middle Woodland group did ultimately become the Iroquoian people of the Historic era. According to this theory, then, all the previous Middle Woodland and earlier people would have been ancestors of the Algonquian speaking people who were then displaced to the north, east and west.

Opposed to this theory is one that holds that there is continuity from the Middle Woodland to the Late Woodland. Holders of this opinion do not see great differences between late Middle Woodland and earlier peoples. According to this theory, either Iroquoian peoples migrated into southern Ontario earlier than the late Middle Woodland or their immigration is not reflected by change in the material culture. A great deal of additional research will be required before these questions can be answered.

This summary of Ontario Archaeology was taken from the Discovering Ontario Archaeology - Speakers Kit. The original texts were written by Jeff Bursey, Hugh Daechsel, Andrew Hinshelwood and Carl Murphy.

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