Ancient hoes found in southwestern Manitoba could reveal more about Indigenous farmers, archeologist says

A recent archeological find in southwestern Manitoba could reveal more about the lives of Indigenous farmers before colonization, says one of the archeologists leading the excavation project.

The site south of Melita, Man., was discovered in 2018 by Eric Olson, an agriculture student at the University of Manitoba, said Mary Malainey, an archaeology professor at Brandon University. Olson, who the site is now named after, found modified bison shoulder blades (or scapulae) along a creek bank.

Those bones would have been used as gardening tools, like hoes, by the people who lived there, Malainey said. She said it’s likely flooding in 2014 brought them to the surface.

“It’s only the second site in Manitoba with really good evidence of pre-contact Indigenous gardening or farming,” said Malainey, who is also the treasurer of the Manitoba Archaeological Society. “This is a really big deal.”

The area is now the site of a joint research project by the university and the archeological society that aims to learn more about Indigenous peoples in the area before the arrival of Europeans, Malainey said.

The tools found there are similar to ones found at a site in Lockport, Malainey said. But the Lockport site was disturbed and eroded, making it tough for archeologists to glean information from what they found there. 

One of the bison scapula hoes found on the site near Melita, Man. (Mary Malainey/Brandon University)

Meanwhile, the site near Melita — a town about 290 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg — is within a wildlife management area, and the findings are nearly untouched. That means archeologists will likely be able to get a better sense of what the pieces actually mean, she said.

“Archaeologists rely on the context of the find, not just not just the individual artifacts, but where they are in relation to everything else in order to create the interpretation, to tell the story of the lives of the people who formerly occupied the site,” Malainey said.

“Like lawyers, you know, you don’t prove anything. You just create an argument and you provide as much evidence as you can to support your argument.”

The scapulae suggest the people who left them were farmers or gardeners, but what the rest of the site might unearth is still to be determined, she said — like where exactly they lived and whether they moved from one place to another.

Initial site testing started last year and the research and public archeology program is on this summer. Experts will collect soil cores from the site to study the remains of crops and other plants recovered at the site.

The team will also do a ground-penetrating radar survey to scan the surrounding prairie and try to find the area’s former village.

People interested in getting a tour can stop by the site — which is west of Highway 83, just north of the junction with Highway 3 — on July 25 and 26 at 10 a.m. or noon. For more details, email [email protected]

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