Early History: Mammoths, First Nations and Ice

Peyto Lake in Banff National Park.
Family of woolly mammoths grazing on what is left of the grass as winter approaches in an icy landscape.
A Viking longship.

The first people to inhabit the area today known as Canada were people of the First Nations and Inuit — groups that throughout history often have been called Indians and Eskimos. These people, collectively known as indigenous or aboriginal Canadians, likely migrated here from Asia thousands or even tens of thousands of years ago. This was a time when large parts of North America was covered with ice, and people of the First Nations could walk across a frozen Bering Strait and into present-day Alaska and Canada.

An icy landscape

During the ice age of the time when Canada’s first peoples arrived from Asia, people sustained themselves by hunting now extinct animals such as giant bison and mammoth. When the ice cap later receded and a new landscape with different animals took form, the First Nations changed their style of hunting and their style of living accordingly. They adapted so much to their new surroundings, in fact, that they came to regard themselves as part of it.

The adaptable indigenous people saw themselves as a small part of a much larger ecosystem, upon which their lives fully depended. This worldview made them so thankful to the rest of the ecosystem, including animals and plants, that they worshiped it. Still, the indigenous people’s high regard for living things and the environment didn’t stop them from hunting animals and killing members of other tribes.

Vikings arrive

Moving forward in history, long after First Nations and Inuit had arrived on the continent, the first Europeans, in the form of Vikings, settled in North America. Arriving via Iceland and Greenland, around the year 1000, the Scandinavian newcomers established a colony on the east coast of present-day Canada, seemingly intent on making their presence there permanent. The party of Vikings was small, however, and after a conflict with some of the indigenous people in the area, about a decade later, they were driven out. Around 500 years would now pass until the next group of Europeans ventured across the Atlantic Ocean.