Besant-Sonota Phase

A.D. 1 - 800


The Besant culture is the earliest representation of the Woodland tradition on the northern Plains. The Native peoples who developed it arrived in the Province approximately 2000 years ago and were the first inhabitants of the local prairie to use and manufacture ceramics. Like the other Plains peoples, Besant groups were heavily dependent upon bison hunting and were skilled in constructing jumps and pounds. They manufactured side-notched atlatl dart points using local stone as well as Knife River Flint and other materials imported from the south (Walde, Meyer and Unfreed 1995:18). Important sites that exemplify the phase include the Richard's Kill Site (Hlady 1967), where a depression on grasslands was used to confine bison for slaughter, and the Avery Site (Joyes 1969) in southern Manitoba, where evidence of meat processing was discovered.

There is considerable debate about the relationship between Besant and the Sonota cultures (see Gregg 1994:72-79 for a summary). The pottery styles are quite similar although the elaborate burial customs of the Sonota, which included obsidian and pipestone offerings, are not found among the Besant remains (Walde, Meyer and Unfreed 1995:17). The classification of projectile points is also ambiguous. Hlady (1967) first reported the Richard's Kill Site as belonging to the Besant Phase and determined that the arrow heads as Besant as well. However, the elongated Knife River Flint points from the site have been reclassified as Sonota. Following Gregg (1994), we will treat Besant-Sonota as a combined category since they share stylistically diagnostic artifacts and occupy the same geographic region.

Environmental Setting

During the time that the Richard's Kill Site and the Avery Site were used by Besant-Sonota peoples, the climate was slightly wetter than present-day conditions. Like the earlier Archaic bison hunters, the Besant-Sonota movements on the Plains were dictated by the bison. The herds moved onto the open grasslands in the southwestern portion of Manitoba, southern Saskatchewan and Alberta during the late spring and early summer. In the fall, they took shelter in the wooded areas along the river valleys and at the edges of the grasslands (Morgan 1980). These areas were generally well watered, and supported a wider range of plant and animal resources than were available on the open grassland, making them attractive to human occupation.

The Richard's Kill Site was located in a shallow slough or pothole on the prairie of southwestern Manitoba near Killarney. Sloughs, or swampy depressions such as those found at the Richard's Kill Site were ideal locations for trapping bison during a hunt. The animals became mired in the thick mud and were easily killed.

The habitation area at the Avery Site was located on a terrace above the northeastern shore of Rock Lake. Here, the wooded slopes of the Pembina River Valley provided shelter from the open grasslands and alternative resources were available. Firewood, fish, deer, elk, bear and a wide range of plants, in addition to bison, were readily available.

Subsistence and Technology

In southwestern Manitoba just outside of Killarney, Mr. J. C. Richards and his family discovered over one hundred projectile points and several end scrapers on their farm property. Closer examination by archaeologist, Walter M. Hlady, in 1967, revealed that the location had been used by Besant-Sonota hunters as a bison pound kill site. The large size of the projectile points indicate the atlatl still served as the primary hunting weapon. Twenty-three large, side-notched Sonota and Besant points were recovered. The majority of the points from the site were manufactured from Knife River Flint.

besant points

Besant Points

sonota points

Sonota Points

The Richard's Kill Site represents only one component of Besant-Sonota life, bison pounding. Avery Site provides a more complex and complete picture which represents thousands of years habitation. The inhabitants used resources from the nearby lake and forest in addition to hunting bison. The many artifacts recovered indicate that the site was used for extended periods of time probably as a primary bison meat processing location. Evidence suggests that as many as 800 animals were butchered and dressed during a single habitation season from August - December. The absence of bison fetus or calf remains indicates that the site was not occupied during the spring. The bison bone remains are almost entirely smashed into splinters that measure not more than several inches in length. After the bone was broken, it was boiled so that the grease would float to the surface of the pot and could be collected to eat or to be used in making pemmican. Deer, antelope and rodent remains were also recovered (Joyes 1970:214).

Besant pottery represents the earliest ceramic tradition on the Plains and is believed to have been introduced from the Missouri River in South Dakota. At the Avery Site, Besant clay pots were recovered in association with Besant-Sonota style projectile points. They were coarsely made and undecorated and assumed globular shapes with no necks (Joyes 1969:122-124). At least some of the Besant-Sonota pots or "Avery Corded Ware" were manufactured using cords of clay placed one on top of the other (Joyes 1969:124). The pots were used to cook food as indicated by the carbon found adhering to the interiors of the potsherds (Joyes 1969:123).

Social and Economic Organization

Woodland cultures such as Beasant-Sonota are known for their extensive exchange networks. The principal routes of long-distance trade were probably along the waterways. North-south trade occurred linking the Red River Valley to the Gulf of Mexico via the via the Mississippi River system. Besant-Sonota people were probably introduced to ceramic technology via these trading links. Trade goods located in Besant-Sonota sites include Knife River Flint from western North Dakota, copper from the Upper Great Lakes region, shell from the Illinois and Ohio rivers and Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coasts (Gregg 1994:76).


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