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The first Manitoba farmers: plant remains from the lockport site.

It was a fine day. Spring sunshine shone down on a small group of women busy with wooden handled hoes fashioned from the shoulder blades of buffalo. The women were clearing brush to prepare garden plots for spring planting. Soon it would be time to plant the corn they had carefully stored since last year's harvest. Before planting, the corn was blessed.

Planting was hard work but the women talked and sang while they laboured under the warm sun, happy now that the spring floods had subsided. They were also pleased that spring fishing in the nearby rapids had been bountiful. The women formed the soil into low hills, made a hole in the center of each with a digging stick and dropped in a half-dozen corn kernels.

After planting, the women busied themselves with other tasks. Some wove floor mats out of bulrushes gathered along the marshy banks of the river, others fashioned clay pots for cooking and storing food. Meanwhile, the men were busy preparing to hunt. They skillfully attached sharp stone points to the wooden shafts of arrows and spears. Soon they would venture out to hunt buffalo on the nearby prairie.

Later, as autumn approached, it was time for the corn harvest. Once the plump ears were removed and husked, it was time for another important ceremony: the celebration of the harvest in which dried buffalo meat and robes were offered to the corn spirit.

After the ceremony, it was time for feasting, Thick chunks of buffalo meat roasted over fires, while aromas from stew pots containing dried fish and vegetables wafted across the camp. Some corn was added to stews while the rest was pounded into a flour and rolled into corn balls for baking. Other seeds that had been gathered on the riverbank were added to the flour. For dessert, small cones of sugar made in the spring from nearby Manitoba maple trees were handed around. The remaining corn and dried buffalo meat were carefully wrapped and lowered into deep pits for later use.

So ended a growing season in the life of an Aboriginal group who lived six hundred years ago.

Just a story, perhaps, but a number of facts have emerged about these early Aboriginal people who long ago grew corn (or Maize Zea mays) at Lockport along the Red River. Thanks to the efforts of archaeologists, we have learned a great deal about past life at Lockport, 14 kms north of Winnipeg and 40 kms upstream from Lake Winnipeg. Excavations by the Historic Resources Branch of Manitoba have unearthed traces of early habitation that shed light on the sorts of tools and utensils used and what early people ate. For instance, excavators found buffalo shoulder blades used as hoes, possible grinding stones, charred corn kernels and corncob fragments and deep storage pits. The most extensive occupation dated to the last period before European contact, about 600 years ago.

Our project focused on the ethno botanical aspects of early Aboriginal life. We wanted to know what crops they grew and what other plants they used. In pursuit of this goal, we began with a survey of the present plant communities, convinced that an understanding of present communities can help interpret the past. The survey gave us an idea of what plants may have been available and the remains we might expect to find. Finally, we analyzed the seeds and charcoal collected during the 1986-88 excavations to reveal direct information about past plant uses.

In our brief survey we noted nearly 100 plant species now growing around Lockport. Surrounding communities consisted of river bottom forest on the low terrace and marsh along the river. Cultivated fields, grasslands and tree groves covered adjacent uplands. Forest trees included the abundant Manitoba maple (Acer negundo) but also featured bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), American elm (Ulmus americana), green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), peach-leaved willow (Salix amyygdaloides) and aspen (Populus tremuloides).

Shrubs included sandbar willow (Salix exigua) and American hazel (Corylus americana), but featured a number of species with edible berries and fleshy fruits such as chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), wild rose (Rosa spp.), raspberry (Rubus idaeus) and Saskatoon (Amelanchier alnifolia). Ground cover consisted of grasses and other herbs, including weedy species introduced from Europe. Before Euro-Canadian settlement began in the first half of the nineteenth century, river bottom forest and grassland would have undoubtedly been more widespread and diverse.

Before European settlement, plant foods that were probably available around Lockport would include a number of edible seeds, berries and fleshy fruits. Also, a variety of woods for fuel and other purposes would have been available.

Armed with this information from the present, we turned to what evidence of past plant use might survive. Because seeds do not usually last long in the soil, charring is virtually the only way that such evidence of past plant use can be preserved. One might well wonder how such seeds could have become charred. In food preparation, edible seeds such as those of a widely used food, goosefoot (Chenopodium), were usually parched or roasted over a fire to keep them from sprouting during storage. Occasionally during parching, some seeds would fall into the fire and become charred. Other foods would not be so easily preserved, however. The tiny seeds of berries such as Saskatoon would most likely be ingested and later passed in feces. Also, plants sought for their sap, leaves, flowers, roots or tubers would have little chance of becoming charred. Even if charred, such soft tissues would easily fragment and be difficult to recover and identify.

To complicate matters, human activities are not the only source of seeds. Seeds from the surrounding vegetation also accumulate in the soil and those accidentally charred might mistakenly be attributed to human use. Furthermore, once deposited, seeds may be moved within the soil by frost action and burrowing animals.

The woods used by the people for their fires may reveal the kinds of trees and shrubs chosen for burning. Charring preserves the structure of wood so that, under a microscope, even tiny fragments (about a half-cm in size) can be identified to their genus.

As in all archaeological studies, piecing together the past uses of plants is a slow and laborious process. Because most seeds and fragments of charcoal are small and fragile, they were not easily collected using shovels and trowels. Instead of picking out these tiny seeds and fragments during excavation, it was deemed efficient to take about a gallon (four to five liters) or more of soil from hearths, storage pits and other places that appeared rich in charcoal. Soil samples were catalogued according to their level and location within the site before being transported to where we recovered the seeds and charcoal.

This recovery was through flotation--the light organic remains were literally floated away from the heavy soil particles. Sorting proved to be the most time-consuming part of the operation for it involved painstakingly going through hundreds of tiny mountains of rootlets and other debris. Once retrieved, seeds and charcoal were identified using modern reference collections.

Time consuming as it was, the process was ultimately rewarding. Charred seeds and wood fragments were found in former occupation layers, storage pits and around the remains of ancient campfires. In the over one hundred soil samples analyzed, we found over 2600 charred seeds belonging to 24 plant genera representing 16 families.

Maize was found in the form of numerous charred kernels and cob fragments of a type known as Eastern Complex eight-rowed. Together with the discovery of scapula hoes and bell-shaped storage pits, this is convincing evidence that Aboriginal people grew maize in southern Manitoba, centuries before Europeans arrived. Lockport has also the distinction of being the most northerly occurrence of pre-European agriculture in North America. Evidence from recent excavations in south-western Manitoba suggests that maize agriculture may have been practiced in that area as well.

Remains of a variety of wild edible plants were also found at Lockport. Among the common charred seeds were golden dock (Rumex maritimus), goosefoot (Cheopodium), raspberry (Rubus), and pigweed (Amaranthus). Our plant community survey suggests that all these plants could have been collected in the vicinity.

In summary, the Lockport site has yielded rich cultural and organic remains, important for understanding the culture history of southern Manitoba over the last 3000 years. The most important discovery was that of charred remains of domesticated maize together with storage pits and scapula hoes in levels dated to six hundred years ago, evidence of agriculture much earlier than previously thought. We also recovered an assortment of edible seeds and berries together with charcoal of a variety of local trees and shrubs.

We feel that we have only scratched the surface in our quest to understand the past. There is far more to learn about these early Aboriginal farmers.


Thanks to Tony Buchner who provided the samples, Joan Kleiman and Cole Wilson for laboratory analysis, and to Donalee Deck for permission to use her charcoal data. Catherine Flynn offered advice on the manuscript.

Funds were supplied by the Heritage Grants Program of Manitoba Culture, Heritage and Citizenship, wage assistance programs of the Province of Manitoba, and personal resources.

Tom Shay is a Senior Scholar at the Department of Archaeology St. Paul's College, University of Manitoba.

Margaret Kapinga has her M.Sc. in Botany and was research assistant.
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Author:Shay, C. Thomas; Kapinga, Margaret
Publication:Prairie Garden
Geographic Code:1CMAN
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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