3. Mammoths, Burial Mounds & Buffalo Jumps – Pre-Contact Indigenous Period, 12,000 BP – 1670 AD


            Approximately 16,000 years ago, North American temperatures gradually began to rise and the huge glaciers began to melt. Nevertheless it still took about 5000 years before this ice had melted back north sufficiently to uncover southern Manitoba. The Turtle Mountains were the first areas to be freed of this massive ice pack and by 11,000 B.C. the Tiger Hills are believed to have also been ice free.  As the ice receded northwards and the ice-front meltwaters drained away, spruce forests soon became established on the newly exposed ground – the northern tree-line following the retreating ice front. Despite the cool and damp conditions, spruce would have been able to grow on the glacial debris as soon as fifty years after the departure of the ice. As the land dried and the climate continued to grow dryer and milder, ash, poplar and birch would have followed. As the forests spread over the region the land became capable of supporting wildlife but the returning wildlife population and diversity was limited as the spruce forest vegetation would not have attracted big game animals nor early human hunters following such game.

            However, as the climate gradually became drier still, during a period known as the “Altithermal Period” from about 8,000 to 2,500 B.C., the forests were slowly replaced by prairie grasslands. In Manitoba these grasslands extended considerably farther to the north than seen in recent centuries. Vast areas only recently covered with glacial moraine and out-wash and meltwater lakes now became ideal pastures for a variety of now-extinct animals. Archaeological remains show that these included: ancient horses; camels; four-horned antelope; giant bison, armadillos and ground sloths, as well the impressively large woolly mammoth and mastodon.  Mammoth remains have been discovered in fifteen separate locations in Manitoba. A section of mammoth tusk was recovered from a gravel pit near Boissevain and is now in a Brandon Museum. A well preserved mammoth tooth was found in a gravel pit near La Riviere and is now on display in the Pilot Mound Museum.  The human population during the pre-contact era has been divided into three principal periods or phases by archaeologists. These are the: Paelo, Meso and Neo-Indian Phases.

Paleo-Indian Phase – 10,000 to 5,000 B.C. 

            With the change from spruce forests to open grasslands during the “Altithermal” period, ancient bison came in large numbers and the human followed. Referred to by archaeologists as ‘Paleo-Indians’, these stone-age people arrived about 10,000 years ago from the plains to the south and southwest where periodic droughts drove wildlife and human populations northward in search of  food and water. The various cultures of early Native people that lived and hunted in the northern Great Plains including what is now southern Manitoba, are identified by archaeologists through the design of the stone points with which they tipped their weapons.

            The oldest archaeological culture of the Paleo-Indians, is the Clovis Culture, named for a town in New Mexico where their stone tool artifacts were first discovered. These natives developed distinctive, finely made stone spear points that were sharp enough to penetrate the thick hides of the Ice Age mammoths and bison they hunted. Generally “Clovis Points” are four to five inches long with nearly parallel sides close to the base. Carefully thinned and extremely sharp, near the base the edges are deliberately dulled in order not to cut the lashing used to attach the point to the shaft. Particularly characteristic is the thinning of the base of the point where the split spear shaft was lashed to the point.

Clovis Spear Point

            Because Manitoba was still largely buried beneath glacial ice during the main period of the Clovis Culture, approximately 12,000 years ago, Clovis artifacts are understandably rare in this province. Only four or five Clovis points have been discovered in Manitoba which are believed to be about 10,000 years old. One of these was picked up on 36-1-8W, eight miles south of Darlingford. This flint point, only a little more than three inches long, is the hard evidence that the earliest known people on the North American continent, the Clovis people, were present in southern Manitoba and explored and hunted in the Turtle Mountains. It is believed that the Clovis people hunted primarily Mammoth and big-horned bison and that their presence in southern Manitoba was fairly short lived, given the rarity of Clovis artifacts.

The Woolly Mammoth was extensively hunted by hunters of the Pre-Contact Paelo-Indian Period.

            After the departure of the Clovis people, the mammoth and the big-horned bison, were in turn hunted by the Folsom people who, invented the use of the atlatl to increase the killing power of the spear. This simple invention, consisting of a stick with a notched end into which the butt end of the spear was placed, greatly increased the strength and velocity by which spears could be thrown. There is speculation that the spear thrower was so efficient in hunting mammoths and mastodons that this single innovation contributed to the extinction of the ‘mega’ sized mammals on the North American continent such as mammoths, mastodons, sloth and giant bison. The Folsum points, which were used from approximately 8,000 to 5,000 B.C. have also been found in locations across the BTNHR.  When the mammoth and big horned bison were hunted into extinction a species of  smaller bison, or buffalo as they are more popularly called, took their place on the grasslands.  Spears were the principal weapons of the region’s hunters for the first 5,000 years of human occupation in the BTNHR, bows and arrows being a relatively modern invention in North America.

Meso-Indian Phase – 5,000 B.C to 900 A.D.

            As the climate became dryer and warmer and grasslands replaced the forests on the northern Great Plains, the somewhat better-watered parkland areas and highlands, such as Turtle Mountain, provided welcome refuge for wildlife and human populations from the frequently drought stricken southern plains. Weapon points during this period underwent change in both shape and style, and a hunter’s arsenal now included darts and lances as well as spears. Another new innovation that appeared during this period was the use of native-copper, which was used to make everyday tools, weapon points, knives and fish gaffs. The copper originated in the Upper Great Lakes region indicating a trading network and or group migration from  that region. Another Meso-Indian period innovation was shell-working. Freshwater clams were collected along major river systems and lake shores and used mostly for body ornament but also as scrapers and small bowls. The clams would also have been a seasonal food item. 

Meso-Indian Period hunters bringing down ancient bison.

            As during the earlier Paelo-Indian period, bone-working continued but bone was now also being made into barbed harpoons for fishing. The harpoons and fish bones founds in archaeological digs indicates that fishing was likely commonplace in southern Manitoba with sturgeon bones positively identified.. Bones found at digs at former campsite showed that beaver, deer, canids and rabbits were also being hunted by Meso-Indian groups in south western Manitoba. Only small amounts of duck bones were present indicating little success hunting waterfowl by the Meso-Indian period people.  This time pre-dated the use of the bow and arrow.

            On the other hand, the distinct abundance of skin-working stone tools found by the Province’s archeologists points to considerable use of leather and hides for clothing and shelter. Another interesting archaeological find stemming from this period were remains of cooking pits, evidenced by fire-cracked roots in filled in pits, pointing to roasting as a mean of fool preparation.

De-hairing and smoking hides.

Neo-Indian Phase – 500 B.C to 1650 A.D.

            In terms of found artifacts, the roughly 2,000 yearlong “Neo-Indian” time period offered the richest and most complex finds, indicating a fairly sophisticated and well developed society. There were many new innovations.  Among them was pottery making. Remains of large round-bottomed jars have been found in several locations. These vessels would have been used for carrying water and boiling food. Impressions on many of these pots points to fabric making. Dip and gill nets were also being made possibly using leather thongs and perhaps plant fabric, evidenced by found net sinker stones.

            Stone and bone working became very sophisticated during this time which now included grinding and polishing of stones. In addition to scrapers, weapon points and net sinkers, grooved hammer stones were commonplace items. Stone wood-working tools were also being made, such as adzes and axes. This allowed for the construction of corrals or ‘pounds’ into which bison would be chased and slaughtered. A site near the forks of the Souris and North Antler rivers is known to have been a long term bison run site. For thousands of years prior to the use of bison pounds as a hunting technique, native groups drove bison herds off cliffs and into gullies where they could be more easily killed, such as at the Claybank site near Clearwater. But the post holes found near North Antler River, gives clear evidence of wood working in the construction and maintenance of this particular bison corral.

            As during previous periods, stone-chipping continued to develop with very finely detailed work being done. Significantly, and for the first time, there is clear evidence that stone arrowheads were being fashioned, indicating the appearance of the bow and arrow. This new innovation allowed for the hunting of much more waterfowl, which is evidenced by bones fragments found in former campsites from this period. The use of the bow and arrow and bison corrals allowed for the acquisition of considerable amounts of meat all at one time. This made it possible to support a larger number of people, and the native population very likely grew significantly during this period, as it did after the acquisition of horses during the early post-contact indigenous period.

            Bone working during this period also showed development and growth. Digging hoes made from deer shoulder blades indicates that some type of agriculture was being undertaken. Bone awls and needles similarly provides evidence of leather-working. Harpoon heads shows fishing was occurring. Fleshing tools were made from the large bones of hoofed animals. Whistles were being made from bird bones and beaver teeth were used a chisels. Freshwater shells were used as paint dishes, with evidence of ochre found in several examples. Salt-water shells from the Gulf of Mexico were used for making beads and pendants, indicating trading connections involving great distances. In addition to the wild game, fish and freshwater clams, berries and fruit also served as a fairly reliable food source. This overall abundance of food resulted in the  development of food storing pits, with several oval-shaped storage pits being found in Manitoba. Many museums in BTNHR contain large and interesting ‘arrow head’ collections, as do many farm families in the region, having discovered items on their fields over the decades. Stone points and other artifacts can be seen at several local museums including in Darlington and Deloraine.

Burial Mounds

            In the western ‘upland’ districts of the BTNHR, earthen mounds abound on the landscape in sizes large and small. Most, like the Turtle Mountain plateau itself, most are remnant outcrops of Cretaceous Period shales that withstood the glacial scouring of the last ice age. Some of these hills and mounds in the BTNHR include: Pilot Mound, Star Mound, Calf Mountain, Spence’s Knob and Mount Nebo, among others.  On top of many of these natural glacial features, Indigenous people of the Neo-Indian Pre-contact Period often made smaller mounds of soil to create burial places for the deceased.

One of a number of mounds investigated by Manitoba archaeologist Chris Vickers during the late 1940s.

            The burial mounds found in the BTNHR are believed to have been built by nomadic bison hunters between 500 AD and 1730 AD during the last thousand or so years of the Pre-Contact period. Some archaeologists such as William Nickerson who excavated several mounds during the early 1900s, suggested they were built by people associated with, or influenced by, the vibrant Siouan culture which was centered in the Mississippi River valley region during this time. Other scholars attribute the burial mounds to the Assiniboine people, who still occupied the region during the early days of the fur trade.

            Because of their high visibility on the landscape, the region’s many mounds naturally attracted the attention of explorers, fur traders, travelers and later by arriving settlers. Prominent individuals such as Henry Youle Hind excavated a burial mound near the Souris River in 1857; John Schultz and Rev. George Bruce, prominent Winnipeg figures excavated several mounds during the 1870s and 1880s. Charles Bells, a Woseley Expedition member carried out his own excavations during the later 1880s. These along with other, un-publicized excavations were not professionally conducted or recorded and amounted to little more than grave robbing.

            The first ‘bona fide’ anthropological investigation of the BTNHR’s burial mounds was undertaken in 1909 by University of Toronto professor Henry Montgomery. Prominent American anthropologist, William Baker Nickerson was commissioned by the National Museum in Ottawa to investigate Manitoba’s mounds and between 1912 and 1915 he excavated sites at: Manitou; Morden; Darlingford; Pilot Mound; and Melita, as well as sites along the Pembina River and north of the Assiniboine River. The region’s mounds were again inspected by Manitoba archaeologist Chris Vickers during the 1940s and more recently by Manitoba Museum curator, Leigh Syms, and University of Brandon Bev Nicholson. Descriptions of their findings were printed in several publications, much of which can be located online, including on the BTNHR and Manitoba Historical Society websites. The region’s burial mounds, and what remains of their contents, are now protected historic sites under the Manitoba Heritage Resources Act (1987). The Sourisford Linear Mounds site has been declared a national historic site. This is one of many sites in the region where the BTNHR has erected site information kiosks.

Buffalo Jumps 

Pre-contact Neo-Indian Period presence in the BHNHR is also evidenced by the discovery of several so-called “buffalo jump” sites, two of which have been investigated by provincial archaeologists. One, known as the Clay Banks Bison Jump, is located north of Clearwater near the confluence of  Badger Creek and Pembina River, and the second known as the Brockington Site is located about  ten miles south of Melita, near the forks of the Antler and Souris rivers.

Clay Bank Bison Jump Interpretative Sign installed by the BTNHR.

At Clay Bank archaeologists found the remains of an ancient campsite and a nearby jump and butchering site. The many artifacts found and studied permitted the investigators to get a more clear picture and understanding of the life ways of the people who occupied this site.  The projectile points found at this site are known as Sonota points and date from between 250 and 600 AD. 

Hunting bison was a very complex and strategic activity. The use of cliffs such as at Clay Banks was only one hunting method. In this scenario, a man, very likely covered in a bison hide, slowly approached a bison herd, pretending to be an injured calf. He counted on the maternal instinct of the female bison to lure the others slowly toward the cliff. Piles of rocks and brush would have been lined up to direct the herd to the exact desired location. At the right moment, women and older children would jump up from behind the stone piles, yelling and waving blankets. The startled animals would stampede over the cliff, at the bottom of which a corral compound had been built to contain the less injured animals until they could be killed.  The job of butchering the carcasses occurred on site, with the meat

Pre-Contact Neso-Indian Period Bison Run and Pound.

processed in the nearby campsite.

Bison bone bed being unearthed by archaeologists.

The Brockington Archaeological Site is situated on the east bank of the Souris River near its confluence with Antler River near the US border south of Melita. This archaeological site is significant for having been occupied by three separate pre-contact cultures over a 1,200 year period. The bison kill and butchering site component of it stems from around 800 AD.  It is quite unusual as the Indigenous people who built it installed a series of vertical posts at the bottom of the Souris river Valley, to build their pound, rather than simply piling stones and brush. Bison would be herded down the steep valley side to run tripping and tumbling into the structure. Archaeologists suggest that this was likely a more efficient method of killing bison than driving herds over a high cliff, as it would have resulted in a minimum of bone breakage.  A very large number of small side-notched arrows were found at the site, ranging from 10 to 45 pounds of material per square meter. It is also evident that, after its use, the Brockington pound was dismantled and re-erected – likely, many times over.  Most of the post holes discovered had been filled in with vertically placed bison bones and small stones, allowing them to be easily uncovered for pound construction the next season or next visit to the area. The existence of former post holes also indicates that stone blades and axes were being used for “wood-working” purposes. Although not the only site where bison run associated post holes have been discovered, the Brockington Jump Site is one of the first and certainly the best documented cases of such a rare occurrence on the prairies.


  Sources consulted – Pre-Contact Indigenous

  • Abel, Kerry M. “Morton – Boissevain Planning District Heritage Report, Prepared for the Historic Resources Branch, unpublished manuscript. November 1984;
  • Ens, Gerhard. Killarney Area Planning District Heritage: Report, Prepared for the Historic Resources Branch, unpublished manuscript, April, 1982.
  • Moncur, William W. Beckoning Hills – Pioneer Settlement Turtle Mountain Souris-Basin Areas. Compiled by special committee in conjunction with Boissevain’s 75th Jubilee, 1956.
  • Nicholson, Karen. A Review of the Heritage Resources of the DEL-WIN Planning District, Prepared for the Historic Resources Branch, unpublished manuscript.
  • Pettipas, L. and A.P. Buchner. “Paleo-Indian Prehistory of the Glacial Lake Agassiz Region” in Manitoba, in “Glacial Lake Agassiz”, ed. by J. Teller, Geological Association of Canada Special Paper 26.  University of Toronto Press.  Toronto, 2004.
  • Turtle Mountain – Souris Plains Heritage Association, Geocaching site cards, 2005.
  • Vickers, C., 1949, Projects of the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba Archaeological Report 1949. Winnipeg.
  • Historic Resources Branch, 1994, First Farmers in the Red River Valley. Manitoba Culture, Heritage and Citizenship. Winnipeg.



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