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Uncovering NWO’s distant agricultural past

Chris Marchand

Chris Marchand served as editor of the Dryden Observer from August 2009 to April 2018.
Lakehead University students excavating a roasting feature at an archaeological site in Northwestern Ontario. Soil tests indicate that maize (corn) was roasted at this spot around AD 1400. Photo submitted

By Michael Christianson

Lakehead University anthropologist Dr. Matthew Boyd and his research team are receiving $381,300 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) to uncover the most northern evidence of farming in the ancient Americas.

Dr. Boyd, who is an associate professor in Anthropology at Lakehead University, and his team will spend five years tracing the origins of food production in the Boreal Forest by studying historic and ancient garden sites in Lake of the Woods.

“Northwestern Ontario in general has a really fascinating past,” said Boyd. “I don’t think that’s something everyone is aware of but what archeology allows us to do is go a little deeper into these things beyond the historical record and look at the lives of ancient people and appreciate the complexity that exists there. It’s well worth studying, this is by no means an area that is somehow uninteresting, it’s not the case at all, its just we know a little less about the archeology of Northwestern Ontario compared to other places.”

The research project is a continuation of work he has done over the last ten years, in the past he focused on food residue archeology which finds items that had been in contact with food long ago and then analyses them to find out what people were cooking and eating in those times.

His research began to show signs of cultivated foods such as beans, which was strange as many thought there was no food grown in this area prior to European contact.

His ongoing research has lead to this current project for which he received the grant researching garden islands in Northwestern Ontario, which he thinks have existed for a lot longer than people have previously thought. He hopes too gain insight into food production; how it worked, how early, how did cultivation economy work into First Nations lives.

“We don’t really know too much about these garden islands.” Said Boyd. “They’re mentioned here and there in the historical documents and surveyors going through some of the larger lakes also make note of them so they’re kind of here and there Lake of the Woods has a particularly large concentration, particularly on the southern side.”

Boyd says the rich archives of documents were a big reason why the area was chosen for research.

Island gardens in particular serve as great archeological sites because they are less impacted by modern development. First Nations used the garden islands because the crops could be left in the spring and they were free to leave and hunt and gather and return in the fall to cultivate their crops without the threat of deer or other animals destroying their harvest.

Boyd says the historical significance of these sites serve the modern day through learning more about the past but it also serves another purpose.

“Looking at First Nations’ land use before European contact is important because it does feed into concerns over expropriation of land, for example by the Canadian government,” said Boyd. “So I think archeology does play a role in clarifying the boundaries of traditional lands at the time of European contact or slightly afterwards because often the documentary record is fairly unclear when it comes to those details.”

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