The archaeological record of the forests of northern Saskatchewan is not well known. This is in part because the amount of research in this area of the province has been limited, in part because the archaeological deposits are shallow and the preservation of materials poor. On the whole, the surface soils in the north have been remarkably stable since deglaciation, largely because of the anchoring effect of the heavy vegetation. As a result, there has been little erosion and deposition, and stratified deposits are therefore rare. Given this situation, it has been very difficult to discern the sequence of changing archaeological cultures over the millennia. Also, because the forest soils are acidic, all bone tends to decompose relatively quickly. Since most archaeological occupations do not contain bone, it is not possible to determine the animals that were relied upon for food, nor is it possible to learn during which season the occupations occurred. The latter is accomplished in other environmental settings (i.e., the grasslands) by examining such things as tooth eruption and wear patterns in order to determine the time of year in which an animal died. An equally critical problem is that this lack of bone reduces the archaeologist's opportunity to obtain radiocarbon dates. In short, the forested region of northern Saskatchewan presents archaeologists with some major research challenges. Therefore, it has been necessary to extrapolate some interpretations from neighbouring regions, such as the Barren Grounds, where there are some stratified deposits and where there is better preservation of the bones of food animals. In the southern edge of the forest, stratified deposits in the Saskatchewan River valley have also been very important.
By 10,500 years ago, the glacier front had receded to about the latitude of the present-day Churchill River; however, the newly exposed lands would have been a chaotic environment of buried ice blocks, raging meltwater rivers, and glacial lakes. In particular, ponded against the ice front was a huge northwestern arm of Glacial Lake Agassiz. It is not surprising, therefore, that human colonization of the north does not seem to have begun until after 9,000 years ago. The hunting weapon employed by these people appears to have been the atlatl, a throwing stick with a hook at one end which is used to propel small spears (darts). In the upper Churchill River basin, three Cody complex lanceolate, stemmed spear points have been found, which on the plains date to about 9,000-8,500 years ago. The people who produced the Cody complex were established plains bison hunters, so the presence of some of these people in the upper Churchill River region probably reflects continued warming in postglacial times, which allowed grasslands (and bison) to expand well north of the historically known limits.
Shortly after 8,000 years ago, the glacial front retreated north, out of the province, and it is likely that the barren-ground caribou population had increased and was migrating seasonally. In any case, people making lanceolate spear points (Plano complex) had clearly become well established, with a subsistence economy focused on barren ground caribou. These people would have lived in small, mobile bands that followed the caribou in their movements between the tundra adjacent to the ice front in the summer and the forests to the south in the winter. This economic cycle has been referred to as “herd following,” and was characteristic of the occupants of the northern transitional forest until historical times, when it was recorded in some detail for the Dene (Chipewyan) of northern Saskatchewan. It is therefore the oldest subsistence economy in the north, and during the summer took people out onto the open tundra of the Barren Grounds.
In the millennia that followed, a succession of archaeological cultures have been recognized in the forest-tundra transition zone and the neighbouring Barren Grounds - all produced by the herd followers. These, best known from the Barren Grounds to the north of the province, are: Shield Archaic, about 7,500-3,500 years ago; Arctic Small Tool, about 3,500-2,650 years ago; Taltheilei, about 2,650-1,400 years ago; and pre-contact Dene, about 1,200-250 years ago. The Shield Archaic is characterized by the introduction of large, side-notched points, and the continuing production of small numbers of leaf-shaped points suggests a development out of the preceding Plano culture. While this may have been the case, it is clear that the Arctic Small Tool culture was brought into northern Saskatchewan by some bands of Paleo-Eskimos from the Arctic coastal regions, probably because deteriorating (colder) climatic conditions had made life in the Arctic increasingly difficult. These Paleo-Eskimos crafted remarkable miniaturized stone tools, delicately flaked from fine-grained, flinty stones. As for Taltheilei, this culture appears to have been brought to the region by peoples from the northwest, the Mackenzie valley region. Taltheilei is recognized by the presence of stemmed dart points and chithos; the latter are disc-shaped hide-working tools that were chipped from coarse stone. A major volcanic eruption on the Alaska/Yukon border, about 1,250 years ago, may have forced pre-contact Dene (ancestral Chipewyan) to move into this region. These people made small side- and corner-notched projectile points, many of them arrowheads.
The second major subsistence economy of northern Saskatchewan was that present in the boreal forest proper, including the Churchill River basin. This economic system was more broadly based, being oriented to taking moose, woodland caribou, black bears, beavers, fish, and waterfowl. Plant foods such as cattail and bulrush roots, as well as berries would also have been important. In the boreal forest, the impact of milder and drier conditions during the Hypsithermal was particularly important. This climatic period reached its peak aridity and temperatures about 9,000-6,000 years ago, at which time the grasslands expanded northward and were bordered by a band of open deciduous forest (equivalent to the contemporary aspen parklands) that extended almost as far north as the Churchill River. This northern extension of the grasslands, along with the deciduous forest, appears to have been sparsely occupied by peoples who made lanceolate (Plano Complex) points. This cultural group appears to have been followed, by at least 6,000 years ago, by some bands of Mummy Cave series peoples, best known from the more southerly grasslands. These peoples employed side-notched points to arm their atlatl darts. Following this, peoples related to those who produced the Oxbow and McKean cultures of the grasslands occupied this region. On the southern grasslands, these cultures date to about 5,000-4,000 years ago and 4,000-3,000 years ago respectively; they may have similar dates in this boreal forest region. These people occupied a forest environment much the same as that known historically, and were generalized hunters and gatherers. They probably relied heavily on fishing, and used some kind of watercraft.
Following 3,000 years ago, the archaeological record is unclear but, as has been noted, Taltheilei cultural materials appear in the north about 2,650 years ago. While some Taltheilei peoples remained in the far north as herd followers, others expanded south throughout the boreal forest. In this environment, they would have been generalized hunters and gatherers. About 1,500 years ago a new material culture, with ties to the Eastern Woodland cultures of the Great Lakes, made its appearance. Known as Laurel, it was characterized by pottery vessels made in a cone shape and often elaborately decorated with impressions made by notched tools. Peoples of this culture expanded eastward as far as Prince Albert and La Ronge, and as far north as Southend on Reindeer Lake. Initially, these people appear to have used the atlatl; however, by the end of Laurel times, around 900 years ago, the bow and arrow had come into vogue and small stone arrowheads with side-notches were made.
The peoples of Laurel culture are believed to have maintained lifeways very similar to those of the historic occupants of the boreal forest. They would have made canoes in the spring, and travelled, fished and hunted from these watercraft throughout the open water seasons. They almost certainly made dip and seine nets, as well as fish weirs of poles and stones. In the winter they would have made toboggans and snowshoes in order to move efficiently over the deep snow pack within the forest. In late Laurel times, a small amount of Blackduck pottery appeared in the Saskatchewan forests. This pottery style is characterized by its globular shape and by elaborate impressed decoration on the rim and neck. It is best known from sites in southern Manitoba, adjacent Minnesota, and northwestern Ontario.
Although pre-contact Dene materials remained in place in the western and northwestern sections of the boreal forest during Laurel times, about 700 years ago a new and vigorous culture expanded throughout the boreal forest of northwestern Ontario, northern Manitoba and northern Saskatchewan. Called Selkirk, the peoples who produced this material culture made globular pottery vessels inside fabric bags, decorating them quite simply with a line of punctates around the lower rim. Also characteristic of this culture are side-notched arrowheads, barbed harpoon points, and ground stone celts (axes). This culture, which ended with the introduction of fur trade goods about 300 years ago, is generally considered to have been produced by the ancestors of the Crees of northern Saskatchewan.