A kernel of truth: archeologists move one step closer to verifying that corn was once cultivated in downtown Winnipeg
Today it’s known for its river walk, market and skating trails, but The Forks in Winnipeg might once have been a centre of food production.
“Most archeologists have always assumed, but without very much evidence, that there would have been agriculture at The Forks as you would have had flooding — maybe every five years or so — that would add nutrients to the soil and make it a good growing area,” said Sid Kroeker, an archeologist who headed a team which conducted a four-year dig at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers.
“But all of the circumstantial evidence points very strongly to the fact that probably early in the spring the people would be at The Forks… they’d plant their gardens and go off hunting buffalo or trips elsewhere for food and occasionally, two, three or four times a summer come back and weed, and water, and then in the fall, harvest.”
Analysis of residue in cooking pots found at the site showed both squash and corn were being cooked. Many of the artifacts are 800 to 1,000 years old, a time when average temperatures were about 2° higher than today, which allowed for extended growing seasons.
It was already known corn was part of local diets because dried kernels have been discovered in storage pits located elsewhere in the province, including at the Kenosewun site at Lockport.
“There was a whole pantheon of foods included in their diets… but the great advantage of corn was that it could be easily stored,” noted Kroeker.
Short of finding a cache of seed corn, there’s no way of knowing for sure whether it was grown here or brought north by native people living in what is now the U.S.
But artifacts found at The Forks suggest that some serious growing was taking place.
“We also did find a couple of tools that would have been used for hoeing and weeding at the site,” said Kroeker, adding one such tool was a sharpened buffalo shoulder-blade hoe.
The rich trove of artifacts unearthed prior to construction of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights also confirm that The Forks has long been a popular meeting place. The dig unearthed 191 separate hearths and approximately 400,000 artifacts.
The magnitude of First Nations agriculture is debated among archeologists in the province, with some preferring to refer to pre-contact plant cultivation as horticulture rather than farming.