Anthropology, Department of


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Published in THE NEBRASKA ANTHROPOLOGIST, Volume 5 (1980). Published by the Anthropology Student Group, Department of Anthropology, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska 68588


Most of the published works concerning the Woodland burial mound complex of the Rainy River District of northern Minnesota and contiguous Ontario pertain to defining the culture history of this region. More specifically, they have focused on the intra and inter site variability of ceramic types (Wilford 1955, Stoltman 1973, 1974, Lugenbeal 1978). These studies have defined a detailed culture history of the Middle (Laurel) and Late Woodland (Blackduck) phases of this region. Currently, the information which has been published on the burial mound complex have shed little light on the economic, social and political systems of the prehistoric peoples of the Rainy River District.

The information available on the subsistence practices of these peoples suggests a hunting and gathering economy with a high degree of seasonal mobility. The political organization characteristic of this type of economy is usually portrayed as an egalitarian one (Service 1964). However, the presence of burial mounds implies a more complex social, political, and economic system than would be associated with a hunting and gathering economy and an egalitarian political organization.

Describing the Hopewellian mound complex in the midwest, Martin, Quimby, and Collier (1947:277) state ...burial mounds imply a social structure capable of organizing a co-operative labor project on a large scale. Albert Spaulding implies that a complex social organization and an efficient economic base would have been necessary for the development of the burial mound complex of the Adena culture (1955:19-20). This effective economic base was, during Adena times, a mixed hunting-gathering and maize agriculture economy. Later, during the Hopewellian tradition, the economic base shifted to one of more intensive maize agriculture. If we assume that the rise of burial mound complexes reflect a more complex form of social organization than is possible under a hunting and gathering subsistence base then the burial mounds associated with the Woodland tradition of the Rainy River District present us with a special problem. It has been shown (Yarnell 1964:128) that this region was unsuitable for effective maize agriculture. If, in this region, maize agriculture is ruled out as a resource which has the potential for large scale group integration then an alternate resource must be sought.

James Stoltman (1973:6) in the introduction to The Laurel Culture in Minnesota, suggests the possibility that the mounds in the Rainy River District could be related to the spring spawning of sturgeon. If indeed these mounds are located at prehistoric sturgeon fisheries then sturgeon fishing could be the economic basis responsible for large scale group co-operation and a more complex form of social organization necessary for the rise of the burial mound complex in northern Minnesota and contiguous Ontario. The possibility that these mounds are located at sturgeon fisheries and that sturgeon fishing could be the catalyst for the development of these burial mounds is the subject of this paper.

Support for the above hypothesis will be examined with reference to at least four data sources, each of which will be discussed in the following pages. The ecological and environmental data will be used to create an overall view of the subsistence patterns which would have been necessary in order to survive in this area. A discussion of the physiology and behavior of the lake sturgeon provides an introduction into the possibility of this fish as a potential food resource for a large group of people, while the ethnohistoric records provide documented evidence of the use of the lake sturgeon as a food resource by the historic Chippewa. Lastly, the archeological reports from various Laurel sites will be discussed as they reflect the subsistence-settlement aspects of the people of the Laurel culture.

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