Five-hundred Years of History at McKinnon Flats: New Discoveries Made in the Aftermath of the 2013 Flood

You may have recently seen a news story about archaeological finds at McKinnon Flats, approximately 22 km southeast of Calgary (see below for news links).  Today, McKinnon Flats is a popular recreational area, used for fishing, hiking and bird watching.  But did you know that five centuries ago it may also have been used for bison hunting and camping?

Archaeologists of Lifeways of Canada Limited have been contracted by Alberta Culture and Tourism to find out about early settlement at McKinnon Flats.  They’re part of Culture and Tourism’s three-year Post-Flood Investigation Program, which was initiated to record the effects of the June 2013 southern Alberta flood on archaeological and palaeontological sites along rivers such as the Bow, Highwood, Sheep and Kananaskis.  As a result of the program, 100 new archaeological sites were identified and additional information was gathered at 87 sites that had been recorded prior to the flood.  Many of these sites were found eroding from the riverbanks, with some in need of investigation before they disappeared entirely.

The McKinnon Flats site is one of these locations. Although it had been previously recorded in 1971, no-one realized that it contained deeply buried cultural deposits.  As a result of the 2013 flood, however, a ten metre strip from the front of the site’s river terrace was removed, leaving a 400 metre exposure in the river bank that contained cultural evidence. This evidence included broken bison bone, large stone choppers and rock that had been heated and cracked in a fire. Among the eroding finds were the remains of a boiling pit that had probably been used to cook meat and process bone marrow in a skin-lined pit dug in the ground.  Evidence of the pit was found in the form of almost 100 heated “fire-broken” rocks that were eroding from one of the riverbank exposures. Between the time the pit was observed in 2014 and the site was excavated in 2016, however, all evidence has been completely eroded.

Collapsed remains of an ancient boiling pit, eroding from a riverbank at McKinnon Flats.

Collapsed remains of an ancient boiling pit, eroding from a riverbank at McKinnon Flats.

The riverbank erosion that continues in the aftermath of the flood reminds us that the archaeological sites exposed in 2013 remain vulnerable to damage. As a result, part of Culture and Tourism’s recent investigation program has involved the detailed archaeological excavation of 12 sites. The McKinnon Flats site was one of these; excavation has shown that it was occupied many times over the last 500 years.  It is one of a number of sites identified during the Post-Flood Investigation that date to this period, sometimes referred to as the “Protohistoric Period.” Occupying a very short period (between 400 and 150 years ago), it represents a time when traditional indigenous hunting and gathering lifestyles were being influenced by the introduction of European trade goods, prior to full contact between Europeans and local Aboriginal people.  Because it represents such a brief period, it is very hard to identify in the archaeological record. The work conducted by archaeologists contracted to Culture and Tourism are changing that, showing us that evidence of the Protohistoric Period has always been present, but that it is sometimes deeply buried in the terraces of southern Alberta’s river systems. This highlights the importance of the Post-Flood Investigation Program, as many of these terraces were among the casualties of the 2013 flood.

McKinnon Flats site on the Bow River.

McKinnon Flats site on the Bow River.

Derrick Foster (Lifeways of Canada Limited) excavating ancient cultural deposits dating back 500 years.

Derrick Foster (Lifeways of Canada Limited) excavating ancient cultural deposits dating back 500 years.

At McKinnon Flats, archaeologists are working to preserve the story of these ancient people through their painstaking excavation and recording. As Culture and Tourism’s program comes to an end, however, this isn’t the end of trying to understand the evidence about past lifeways at McKinnon Flats or other places throughout the province. It’s suspected that many more locations across Alberta contain information about the lives of ancient people, and that some of these locations may be threatened by the effects of natural forces such as flooding and erosion. If you find a site that you think may be archaeological and want to report it, please report it to Culture and Tourism’s Report-A-Find program.  You’ll find information about the Report-A-Find program at or call (780) 438-8506.

Written By: Wendy Unfreed (Plains Archaeologist)

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