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Subarctic Region of North America


Nearctic Ecozone, Subarctic America

Nearctic Ecozone, Subarctic America

Carol Spears
Boreal Forest (Taiga) in Alaska

Boreal Forest (Taiga) in Alaska

L.B. Brubaker

The Subarctic in North America defines a culture region that includes northern Canada, and Alaska south of the Arctic and east of the North West Coast.

The border between Arctic and Subarctic North America coincides approximately with a border zone between the Tundra and the boreal forest. This area was occupied by two main language families at the time of the European conquest: the Algonquian and Athapaskan.

Subarctic Environment

The Subarctic environment is defined by a boreal forest, called taiga, where the dominant trees are spruces and pines. Compared to the High Arctic, the Subarctic enjoys longer summers and a more various fauna: caribou, but also moose, beavers, minks, along with freshwater fish and migratory birds.

Subarctic Prehistory:


During the Paleoindian period, groups of hunter-gatherers penetrated the Subarctic in multiple waves following the progressive shrinking of the ice sheet.

In the scarce Paleoindian settlement found, archaeologists recovered lanceolate points similar to the ones found in contemporary Great Plains sites. In the Western Subarctic, the earliest evidence of human presence come from the Yukon Basin in Alaska, and dates around 9500 BC.

Three different traditions characterize the Archaic period in the Subarctic: the Northern Archaic, the Shield Archaic and the Maritime Archaic.

Northern Archaic

The Northern Archaic included a stone tool traditions that developed around 4500-4000 BC and was characterized by small, side-notched projectile points, scrapers and unifacial knives. People used these tools to hunt caribou, waterfowl and moose. Sites of this period mainly include nomadic hunting camps and have been found all over Alaska, and close to the Arctic Ocean coast.

Shield Archaic

The Subarctic Archaic tradition located on the Canadian Shield and West of the Hudson Bay is referred to as Shield Archaic. People by 5000 BC settled along the shores of lakes and in the interior and exploited the available resources such as shellfish, fish, local vegetation as well as caribou, which was one of their primary resource.

Maritime Archaic

The Maritime Archaic tradition (ca 5000-1000 BC) developed along the Atlantic coast of Maine until Labrador and Newfoundland. The most important site of the region is the cemetery of Port aux Choix dating to 3000-2000 BC. The burials contained many artifacts from harpoons, bone points, shell beads, along with antler and ivory daggers. Many of the deceased were covered in ochre, suggesting some sort of social differentiation. Maritime Archaic groups were later displaced by pre-Dorset and Dorset groups who moved southward from the Arctic between 1000 BC and the 1st century AD.

Later Subarctic Cultures

The different traditions that characterized the Subarctic Archaic gradually evolved in locally distinct Native American groups, like Athapaskan groups, many of which were later encountered by the Europeans.

Only in the eastern portion of the Subarctic region there is evidence of some, scattered use of pottery, probably due to trade, during the Woodland period.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to North American Archaeology and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Fagan, Brian, 1991, Ancient North America. The Archaeology of a Continent. Thames and Hudson, London & New York.

Gibbon, Guy, ed, 1998, Archaeology of Prehistoric Native America. An Encyclopedia. Garland Publishing, Inc, New York & London

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