Archaeology project hopes to reveal the lives of pre-contact Indigenous farmers

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A joint research project by Brandon University (BU) and the Manitoba Archaeological Society (MAS) will tell us more about the way Indigenous people lived in southwestern Manitoba before the arrival of Europeans.

Brandon University Department of Anthropology Professor Dr. Mary Malainey and the MAS have received Manitoba Heritage Grant funding to support an archaeological program at the Olson site, south of Melita. The site was discovered in 2018 by Mr. Eric Olson, who found modified bison scapulae (shoulder blades) along a creek bank.

One of the bison scapula hoes (photo by Mary Malainey)

“The tools were used by Indigenous people as hoe blades,” says Dr. Malainey. “These bison scapula hoes are the best archaeological evidence of Indigenous maize, or corn, cultivation prior to European contact ever found in southwestern Manitoba.”

Initial testing of the site began in 2019, and a short research and public archaeology program is planned for this summer. Excavation will be conducted around a workshop for making bone tools. Several professional archaeologists will work at the site as volunteers. Dr. Sara Halwas will collect soil cores from the site and plans to study the remains of domesticated crops and other plants recovered from them as a post-doctoral research project at the University of Manitoba. In addition, the surrounding prairie will be examined using ground-penetrating radar (GPR).

“We hope the GPR survey will help us locate the former village of the pre-contact Indigenous farmers,” Malainey says. “The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge, but we’re developing a short program for this year that will fall in line with physical distancing protocols and produce some exciting results.”

The Manitoba Heritage Grants Program is providing $8,000 to Dr. Malainey and $7,500 to the Manitoba Archaeological Society to carry out the research. The MAS ($6,300) and Brandon University ($5,000), through a BU Research Committee grant to Dr. Malainey, are also funding the project. In addition, funding from the Canada Summer Jobs program will enable Dr. Malainey to hire a student field and lab assistant for six weeks.

“This project is one example of the excellent collaborative research that Brandon University carries out with community partners,” says Lisa Robson, Acting Dean of Arts at BU. “Through her work, Dr. Malainey provides great research opportunities to students, while also cultivating a greater understanding of the history of this region by showing us how people here once lived.”

Weather permitting, public archaeology activities will be held on July 18, 19, 25 and 26. Presentations and site tours will be given; interested individuals will have the opportunity to help professional archaeologists excavate the site.


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