Ancient and Early Historic Fishing in the North

In the boreal forest, where big game animals were often hard to find, fish were a life-saving staple for thousands of years. Archaeological and historical records reveal a wide variety of fascinating angling techniques used by Alberta’s First Nations.

Figure 9. Fishing techniques edit


To increase awareness of these practices and other elements of Alberta’s past, a collaborative team of the Historic Resources Management Branch, the Royal Alberta Museum, and the University of Alberta initiated the Heritage Art Series project. The goal is to create artwork that captivates the public in order to encourage the appreciation and protection of Alberta’s past.

The second painting in the series is a symbolic depiction of a mother teaching her daughter about the relationship between people and fish. First Nations survived in Alberta by passing down immense amounts of knowledge, which this image by Jenny Keith illustrates. The artwork also celebrates the role that women make to traditional diets. Fishng was primarily a women’s task in Northern Alberta. Women needed to know where to catch fish, how to make nets, how often to check them, and when to repair them.

The largest catch of fish was traditionally by gill net during fall spawning runs of whitefish. Whitefish were particularly important because they are high in fat, which becomes scarce in the north during long winters. Gill nets are long rows of interconnected squares that capture fish by the gills. What were nets made of before twine? Amazingly, women spent hundreds of hours weaving twisted willow bark or animal sinew into long nets.

Figure 10. Net IMG_1047
This is an example of a willow bark net from the Royal Alberta Museum.

Gill nets were set across rivers or narrow channels during warmer months or were strung through holes under the ice in winter. Large fish were also shot with bow and arrow or were speared by canoe. Some First Nations made fishing arrowheads out of pike jaw bones: nothing catches fish better than fish! Jigging with hooks made of bone and wood was also done, primarily in winter. Hooks were baited with meat scraps, hair, feathers, and beaver oil.

Fishing increased in importance when Europeans arrived. Fur traders in Northern Alberta made a living on pelts but they lived on fish. At Fort Chipewyan in Northeast Alberta, traders caught 33 000 fish from October to January in 1822. The ration was four fish a day (and a potatoe if they were lucky). Some northern trade posts even had to be relocated because they lacked good access to fisheries.

The archaeological record of fishing is sparse because fishing tools are often organic while fish bones tend to be fragile: very little of this survives in Alberta’s acidic soils. Some interesting fish-related fnds include possible stone fish hooks, bone prongs used on fish spears, sinkers (weights) that weighed down nets, and fish vertebrae that were drilled to make beads.


Artifact compilation
This is a collection of pre-contact fish-related artifacts from Alberta that span several thousand years.

Recently developed scientific techniques have also enabled the recovery of fish blood from the edges of stone tools like arrowheads and knives. Even though fish bones don’t survive, archaeologists studying blood residue have been able to determine that fish like pike, walleye, and whitefish were caught thousands of years ago. Lastly, fur trade forts have yielded an interesting array of early hooks. Some are entirely metal while others, like the example below, are a combination of bone and iron.

Figure 4. Fish hook
This fur trade fish hook was found by Jack McIntosh at Dunvegan near Grande Prairie.

When asked to imagine ancient life and food harvesting practices, people often think of men stalking mammoths or stampeding buffalo over cliffs. In reality, for much of Alberta’s human history, women have made just as important if not more important contributions to traditional diets. The painting above is intended to broaden perspectives of hunting and fishing practices while emphasizing the social dimension of food harvesting. People didn’t just survive by capturing food; they persisted for thousands of years by acquiring generations of knowledge that was passed down from parent to child year after year after year.

Stay tuned for the next installation of the Heritage Art Series, which will present the physical record of cabins and their significance in Alberta’s early history.

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Northern Archaeologist, and Dr. Jack Ives.

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