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Lower Great Lakes

Dr. Rankin’s work in the lower Great Lakes involved a re-analysis of a 14th century A.D. horticultural village on the shore of Lake Huron known as the Nodwell site, resulting in a new interpretation of the processes involved in the adoption of horticulture in this region.

The site was previously interpreted as an intrusion of Iroquoian people from further east in the 14th century A.D. who were seeking new land for cultivation. This took no account of the fact that there were already people in the area at the time, nor of their possible relations with the newcomers.

Location of the Nodwell site and the research area in the Lower Great Lakes
Location of the Nodwell site and the research area in the Lower Great Lakes.

Dr. Rankin’s re-analysis of the site was prompted by data overlooked or ignored by previous researchers, including artifactual evidence and carbon dates, indicating that the site had been occupied not for a decade or two, but over a span of at least 700 years. Armed with this knowledge, Dr. Rankin undertook a re-analysis of the Nodwell site, and a programme of survey to establish how the Nodwell site fitted into the long-term regional settlement and subsistence history of the area.

Chart of radiocarbon dates showing the
three major periods of occupation at the Nodwell site.

As a result of this work, Dr. Rankin was able to show that the Nodwell site, far from being an intrusive village, had been a winter macroband habitation for the local hunter-forager populations since before A.D. 700, and continued to be so up into the 14th century. The earliest occupation of the site was as a small hunting or fishing camp, probably sometime in the late 5th or the 6th century A.D. At about A.D. 1000, the site became a more substantial aggregation site with the construction of a single longhouse, similar in form to longhouses at a slightly earlier, nearby macroband habitation site. This change in settlement pattern probably reflects the intensification of food storage, and resulting decrease in group mobility.

Map of the most recent phase at the Nodwell site, showing three phases of house building.
Map of the most recent phase at the Nodwell site,
showing four phases of house building.

During three subsequent phases of occupation, in the 13th to 14th centuries, additional longhouses were constructed, probably totalling five houses at any one time, and towards the end of the site’s use, a defensive palisade was constructed. Subsistence data from the Nodwell site and other sites in the vicinity show that fishing was always the dominant economic pursuit, followed by hunting. Only small quantities of maize were recovered at Nodwell, and none at any of the surrounding sites. Taken in conjunction with the lack of evidence for fields in the vicinity of the site and the small number of artifacts that might be associated with maize processing, this makes it likely that the maize consumed at the site was acquired from horticulturalists living to the south through trade.

A field assistant searches for artifacts on the shore of Lake Huron, south of the Nodwell site
A field assistant searches for artifacts on the shore of Lake Huron,
south of the Nodwell site.

By placing the Nodwell village into a regional and long-term historical context, Dr. Rankin was able to establish that, far from being the result of a migration of horticulturalists into the region, the site reflects the history of local cultural changes in a forager population. Those changes were the result both of local events, and of the impact of events external to the foragers’ territory. The overall form of the most recent occupation of the Nodwell village, as well as its ceramic styles and the presence of maize acquired through trade, suggest that the Nodwell foragers were incorporating new ideas from horticultural settlements outside of their territory. Thus the long-term history of the Nodwell site reflects changes in the way the indigenous foragers interacted with neighbouring horticulturalists over time.

A section of the Saugeen River near Lake Huron: a major fishing river in the area.