Manitoba’s agriculture history started long before the sodbusters arrived

Researchers say plants such as lamb’s quarters aren’t here by accident, and growing corn goes back more than a millennium

Leigh Syms, retired associate curator of archeology at the Manitoba Museum, holds a replica of a bone hoe once used by First Nations farmers.   Photo: Shannon VanRaes

Does it ever seem that unrelenting weeds such as lamb’s quarters and amaranth were somehow bred to thrive on the Canadian Prairie?

In fact, they were.

But if you think corn is a new crop in this part of the world, think again — Aboriginal farmers were growing it more than a millennium ago.

Technology is giving scientists powerful new tools to assess the history of Prairie agriculture, and it begins long before the arrival of Europeans, says archeologist Leigh Syms.

Lamb’s quarters, a relative of suddenly trendy quinoa, was selectively bred for several thousand years by Aboriginal farmers, with the resulting varieties so well suited, they’re almost impossible to thwart.

“What you will find is that things like lamb’s quarters and pigweed are phenomenal, they’re richer nutritionally than wheat and barley… and incredibly prolific,” said Syms. “All these things that are the nemesis of modern farmers, were very important to agriculture at that time… We’ve called them weeds, but they’re not.”

And these weren’t small-scale gardens, he said. Often located in flood plains, fields could be a quarter of an acre to four acres in size and would require intensive, manual management.

“An acre is slightly less than half a football field including the end zones,” says Syms, now retired from his job as curator of archeology at the Manitoba Museum but still very active in his profession.

“That’s a lot of plants, you can actually plant about 2,500 hills in there, and if you have five plants per hill, you’ve got 12,000 plants.”

With no draft animals, all field work was done by hand with bone or stone hoes, often made with the shoulder blade of a bison or elk, along with wooden digging and prying sticks.

Many of the plants we categorize as “wild,” such as wild rice, have actually been cultivated for at least a millennia, he said.

For example, First Nations farmers would replant the rice in areas damaged by high water using mud balls imbedded with rice grains, which would be placed on the ice in the winter so they would sink in spring and seed the lake or riverbed below. It’s not known if there were domesticated rice varieties, although it’s hoped DNA testing will one day answer that question.

But in some cases, domestication of plant varieties is clear.

Corn, beans and squash, which made their way north from South and Central America, were further domesticated as they travelled into cooler climates, Syms said.

“Prior to 900 AD the main crops would have been things like knotweed and lamb’s quarters, but we begin to see corn widely after that time,” he said.

At one archeological dig that examined a native site in southwestern Manitoba that was occupied after 1000 AD, approximately 96 per cent of all cooking pots and grinding stones showed evidence of having been used for corn or beans — a discovery made possible by technology able to analyse phytoliths, a mineralized plant secretion.

During excavations for the Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, this new technology revealed the presence of foods such as corn, beans, sunflower leaves and seeds, lotus tubers, sumac fruit, beeweed, rosehips, wild onions, cocklebur, currents, snowberry, pine nuts, plum, hazelnut, saltbush and many others.

Excavation at Lockport and other sites have revealed dozens of other plants cultivated and eaten by First Peoples, including poke, sedge, willow, purslane, dodder, bindweed, and prairie turnips, along with a variety of pulses and grasses.

This sort of research is turning our understanding of the Prairie past on its head, said Syms.

“When you read Canadian history, they were out hunting bison and then they mashed up berries to go with the bison and make pemmican, that’s about all you hear,” he said.

“But before the first Europeans, they were into plants for stews, they were making a lot of stews, they were into flavouring, there’s a huge variety,” said Syms.

The idea of a purely nomadic society, one that followed the buffalo and just set up camps along the way doesn’t hold up when compared to the evidence of agriculture, fields that would need to be tended, and storage pits that illustrate surplus, he said.

There’s much more to be discovered, although a lack of ethnobotanists and archeologists dedicated to the study of plant remains is slowing the effort, he said.

“We’re on the cusp of really getting an appreciation of what’s involved here,” he said.

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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