The McKean Complex


The McKean complex most likely originated within the Desert Tradition centered in the American Great Basin where the foraging strategy included a variety of small mammals, reptiles and plants. The type site itself is located in Wyoming on the Basin's eastern margins. The culture seems to have diffused in a northeasterly direction, including contiguous areas of Montana, the Dakotas, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Manitoba sites are concentrated in the Swan River Valley in the southwestern corner of the province and the area around Rock Lake in south central Manitoba (Syms 1970:127). Surface finds and an excavated site in Whiteshell Provincial Park indicate that McKean people were also using the southern Boreal Forest/ Shield regions.

mckean distribution

The geographic distribution of McKean and Oxbow sites overlap in space and time, although the later are exclusively found in the northern part of the province. Separate Oxbow and McKean sites found adjacent to one another indicate that the groups co-habited and shared a similar subsistence base. The McKean Tradition is particularly well represented in Manitoba at the Cherry Point site at Oak Lake in the southwestern part of the province.


The McKean tradition is marked by three point styles -- McKean, Duncan and Hanna -- that may represent different interacting groups. The tool kit reflects the ability of Aboriginal peoples to adapt to their changing environment. Projectile points are narrow, medium sized and lanceolate in shape, with pronounced concave bases. Duncan and Hanna are two stemmed variants . At some McKean sites, Oxbow-like side-notched points types are included. In addition to points, chopper, knives end scrapers and spokeshaves have been recovered from the Cherry Point site in southwest Manitoba (Haug 1976). Spokeshaves were used for scraping shafts and stripping bison tendons.

mckean point

McKean Point

hanna point

Hanna Point

In the Wyoming type site, stone slabs were used as mortars and pestles for processing plant food. Bone, wood, leather, and cordage artifacts have been recorded from a few sites on the northern Plains. Bone implements that were possibly used for gaming, decorative beads, and basket fragments suggest an complex and elaborate cultural tradition. Manitoba sites contain neither the grinding implements nor the tools items made from materials other than stone that are found further to the south.


The McKean people were foragers who, in addition to hunting bison, trapped small mammals and reptiles, and collected seeds and vegetable products. At the United Church site at Rock Lake, Manitoba (MacNeish and Capes 1958) bison remains were predominant but bird, rodent (including beaver), bear, canines, deer and fish were recovered as well. The absence of mortars and pestles suggests that plant food may not have been of central importance, although the possibility remains that other vegetable processing technologies were developed (Syms: 1970:136).

Settlement Pattern and Social Organization

Habitation sites were located on stream or river terraces. The Kuypers Site, on the banks of the
Assiniboine River near Winnipeg, inhabited during the fall season (Buchner 1981). The Cactus
Flower site in Alberta was located on the banks of the Saskatchewan River (Brumley 1975).
Basin-shaped hearths, a feature typical of McKean campsites, and associated artifacts indicate
that a variety of activities took place here. Evidence of possible shelters were excavated at the Cactus Flower site. A circular artifact scatter three metres in diameter represented the interior of
a structure. Stones positioned around the circumference were used to weigh down the edges of tents and to keep out drafts. At the Harder Site in Saskatchewan, traces of six to eight round packed earth floors are suggestive of circular tipis (Dyck 1977).


There is little evidence that the McKean people buried their dead. Only one McKean burial has been found in Canada other than a cremation of a single individual at a site south of Saskatoon. Medicine wheels are common on the Plains of Alberta and Saskatchewan but are rare in Manitoba.

View Cherry Point Site, A Mckean Example

View Next Phase: Pelican Lake

© 1998 Manitoba Archaeological Society
Web Development: Brian Schwimmer, University of Manitoba
Text and Graphics: Brian Schwimmer, Virginia Petch, Linda Larcombe
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