At the time of European contact Canada had been inhabited for more than 4 000 years. The Native population stood at about 300 000, with the largest concentrations in the lower Great Lakes area and on the West Coast. The population was culturally very diverse, and the variety of languages spoken was far greater than in Europe. How is all this information reconstructed? Some of the data is ethnohistoric in nature, from accounts of explorers, missionaries and early settlers. The other available data is archaeological. Both sources are represented on the maps in this chapter.

Of course, contact took place at different times in different parts of the country. In the east, the French compiled much ethnographic information before European diseases spread through the Great Lakes basis in the 1630s. This provides the knowledge base for the interactive map of Eastern Native Population, Early 17th Century.

For most of the rest of what is now Canada, knowledge is somewhat more speculative. It is known that 12 major linguistic families existed in Native Canada. These are outlined on the interactive map of Linguistic Families, 17th Century.

Subsistence for native people in northern North America was based largely on hunting, fishing and gathering, with agriculture limited to a few areas in the east, as far as is known. Two maps in this chapter show contrasting use of data sources for earlier, and more recent time periods. The interactive map of Native Subsistence, 1000 CE to European Contact, Archeological Data shows the types of animals that were eaten based on the objects and built structures found in archaeological digs. This is obviously limited to those artifacts that could be preserved, and so inevitably is only part of the story. The interactive map of Native Subsistence at European Contact, Ethnohistoric Data is a more complete picture of activities of the time, though as always, subject to the data limitations of its own sources.

An interesting contrast to these maps can be found in the later chapter in the atlas, Native Canada, ca 1820, which takes a broader look at Native population and how the economies of native subsistence changed after contact.