Archaeological Ethnography among Mackenzie Basin Dene, Canada


124 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography
ISBN 0-919034-57-8




Reviewed by E. Leigh Syms

E. Leigh Syms was Curator of Archaeology at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, Winnipeg.


Dr. Robert R. Janes is Director of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, Yellowknife, NWT. He has been involved in archaeological surveys, ethnographic analysis, and cultural resource management in the Northwest Territories since the early 1970s.

This is an ethnoarchaeological study of one Dene group — i.e., an in-depth ethnographic study utilizing an archaeological perspective with an emphasis upon material culture, spatial distributions, and activity areas. The Dene group consists of the Willow Lake community of Athapaskan-speaking Slavey living along the Loche River of the Mackenzie River drainage. After providing an introduction to the environment and natural resources, the study describes, in detail, the social and physical composition of the community, special activity areas, male and female activity patterns, special purpose sites, refuse disposal, tool manufacturing and use, and general subsistence seasonal patterns, based upon field work in the community in 1974 and 1975. Since Janes is interested in the implications of this research for archaeological interpretation, he looked at the processes of how the archaeological record was being “laid down” and the interpretive problems that were being created (e.g., smearing and blinding of the record through activities such as clearing the dog yards) and loss of the record (e.g., butchering on the river ice).

The study provides a wealth of knowledge about the everyday activities of the Willow Lake people. Observations are supported with numerous good quality photographs, plus maps and sketches of structures, camps, and activity areas.

It takes a detailed case study approach. For example, in looking at special activities, descriptions and sketch maps are made of five different beaver hunting camps, which shows the variability that occurs. The only criticism I have is that this emphasis upon showing the variability masks general trends. For example, when sex-related activities are being discussed, it is demonstrated that both sexes take part in many activities, but it is clear that some of the cases of women doing men’s tasks are due to exceptional circumstances, such as their being raised as orphans or being unusual individuals. It would have been useful to distinguish sex-related activities on the basis of usual or common behaviour in addition to activities where there were no observed cases of doing each other’s tasks.

The study provides crucial insights into the problem and directions for archaeologists attempting to interpret their research in the forested regions as well as for archaeologists working anywhere. Janes clearly demonstrates the importance of intensive use of ethnographic analogy and the importance of developing ethnographic models to reduce ethnocentric biases of archaeologists.

This monograph is exciting, interesting, and thought-provoking. It will be an important addition for anyone who wants to understand and appreciate the lifestyles of Athapaskan peoples and for archaeologists who are developing models for interpreting their data or attempting to understand the limitations of their data.


Janes, Robert R., “Archaeological Ethnography among Mackenzie Basin Dene, Canada,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 23, 2024,