Oxbow Complex

The appearance of the Oxbow complex marks the beginning of the Late Plains Archaic. This phase involved a substantial increase in the number of sites and a noticeable rise in population. This trend may have been related to an ameliorating climate and increased food resources. Native populations on the Northern Plains appear to have concentrated in Saskatchewan, although wide-spread evidence of occupation has also been found in Alberta and Manitoba.

The Setting

Oxbow projectile points were first found at the Oxbow Dam site in southern Saskatchewan. Side-notched points which appear morphologically similar to Oxbow, have been found both in the eastern United States and in the "Bitterroot", "Salmon River" and "Mummy Cave" complexes on the western Plains. The general eastward spread of the complex suggests a western origin.

oxbox distribution

In Manitoba, Oxbow artifacts are found primarily in the southwestern and central portions of the province, although finds have be made as far away as Southern Indian Lake in the northern part of the province and along the Winnipeg River in the east. The distribution suggests seasonal movement between the grasslands and forest.


oxbow point

oxbow tools

The Oxbow projectile point is recognized by its concave base and rounded "ears" as well as the more general feature of side notching. These points were attached to atlatl darts and were commonly re-sharpened until very little was left of the blade. Other tools such as choppers, knives, perforators, scrapers, drills, and hammerstones were used for meat processing, wood-working, hide preparation and plant processing. Fire-cracked rocks are common artifacts from Oxbow sites and campsites. The nature of the fractures indicates extreme heat and rapid cooling similar to that which occurs when heated rocks are dropped into cold water. These rocks have no value for tool manufacture and are believed to have been used for boiling water for extracting bone marrow and cooking. Stoneboiling techniques were observed in historical times as indicated William Francis Butler's 1872 account:

Subsistence Base

The abundance of bison remains at Oxbow sites on the Plains indicates that the occupants relied heavily upon a communal hunting strategy. However, in spite of this evidence, no indication of actual hunting techniques have been recovered. The Hill Sites in the Swan River Valley were near a likely bison wintering location (Gryba 1976), as the high promontory where they are located would have been an ideal lookout point. Other food resources that were present, such as elk, wolf, rabbit, fox, gooseberries, cherries and river clams were important to the diet and indicate the diversity of food resources characteristic of Archaic subsistence strategies. Faunal remains at Oxbow sites found within the forest include smaller game animal, moose and caribou.

Settlement Pattern and Social Organization

Evidence from Saskatchewan Oxbow sites suggests that groups of perhaps 40-60 people formed moderate sized campsites (Dyck 1977). In Manitoba, the Kupers Site on the banks of the Assiniboine River was inhabited by Oxbow people during the fall season (Buchner 1981). Smaller Oxbow sites in the province most likely represent settlements of individual family groups who separated from larger band in the winter. No evidence of dwelling structures have been found. Some trade is evident.


The Oxbow people had a well developed sense of spirituality and ceremonial tradition as evidenced from their burials, which date from 3,000 B.C. and provide the earliest evidence of formal interment in the province. Hundreds of burials at the Gray Site in Saskatchewan represent a cemetery which was used for over 2,000 years. The individuals were bundle buried. Red ochre was liberally scattered over grave goods such as Oxbow points, a clam shell gorget, shell beads and animal bones. No graves from the Oxbow period have been found in Manitoba.

Continue: McKean Phase

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