The Archeological Record
Anyone who has spent time in Northern Ontario knows that ice has had a major role in shaping the landscape of the province. The northern part of the North American continent has periodically been covered by sheets of glacial ice. The Wisconsin glacier, as the last occurrence is known, reached its peak about 18,000 years ago but Southern Ontario was not completely free of ice until about 6000 B.C.E. The area did not attain its present appearance with the retreat of the ice sheet. Huge bodies of water remained, the land was recessed by the recent weight of 5000 feet of ice, all vegetation had been stripped away and the climate was still tempered by the presence of large ice fields to the north. Slowly the water drained, the climate warmed and the forests returned. At first, boreal forests covered southern Ontario but hardwoods gradually moved north.
There is scant evidence of the presence of man in Southern Ontario before 3000 B.C.E. though the big game hunters of the Clovis Tradition (11,000 – 8000 B.C.E.) may have visited the area in very small numbers. Their large fluted spear points have been found but in much smaller numbers than south and west of the province.
The Plano culture spreading from the western half of the continent shared many traits of the Clovis tradition. They seem, like the Clovis people, to have originated as big game hunters. The primary difference between the two peoples is their style of tool making. Finer points replaced the bulky points of the Clovis tradition. The game animals available began to change around 6,000 years ago. Mastodons, mammoths, and massive deer known as cervalces, were hunted to extinction. The Plano culture may have been the first people in this area of North America to practice a hunter-gatherer way of life. The human population in Southern Ontario throughout the Palaeo-Indian period (Clovis and Plano) was very small.
Around 3300 B.C.E., a different culture moved into Southern Ontario from Eastern North America. Superior tool making, including the use of native copper and the remarkable throwing mechanism known as the atlatl, marked the Laurentian Archaic period. For the first time, substantial numbers of people inhabited the area. The stock of game animals had evolved to something approximating the situation in the historic period. Fishing and gathering of food were definitely of more importance to Archaic cultures than to earlier peoples though they remained primarily big game hunters. Patterns of life may have been similar to those of Algonkian peoples in the historic period.
The Laurentian period gave way to what archaeologists call the Woodland period. The change is marked by the arrival of a single technological addition: pottery. Its first appearance in Southern Ontario occurred around 1000 B.C.E. The population continued to grow and more food types were exploited, such as wild rice, but apart from the use of pottery, the patterns of life changed by evolution rather than revolution
The various styles of decoration and construction exhibited by pottery sherds tell archaeologists a great deal about the cultural influences of a given people. The people of the Initial Woodland period adopted pottery styles from Northern Ontario, the Southern U.S. and from an adjacent culture called Meadowood. By about 700 B.C.E., some east-west cultural differences appeared in Southern Ontario. The eastern culture, known as Point Peninsula, adopted the burial practices of the Hopewell tradition, a very sophisticated culture that developed in the Ohio Valley. The building of burial mounds practised by these people seems to have come from Meso-America.
The differences between Point Peninsula and its western equivalent, Saugeen Culture, partly reflect earlier cultural divisions between southwestern and southeastern Ontario. Saugeen people did not, however, adopt the burial practices of the Hopewell tradition.
The Saugeen culture seems to have been supplanted by another Hopewell-influenced tradition called Princess Point. These people settled along the north shore of Lake Erie. It is unclear whether Princess Point represents the arrival of different people from the south around 500 C.E. or whether the original inhabitants merely adopted new practices. Princess Point culture was, however, a radical departure from that of Saugeen.
The Princess Point people were likely the first to grow corn in Ontario. The growing of this important crop is fundamental to the next archaeological period in Southern Ontario. By about 900 C.E., the characteristics of Iroquoian society are clearly discernible. Along with the growing of corn, these characteristics include: the construction of longhouses and large villages, pipe smoking, and other traits similar to those of the historic
Consistent with earlier periods, the Terminal Woodland period is divided into two cultures in Southern Ontario, although in actual fact the presence of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians constitutes a third group. Glen Meyer existed in the west and Pickering culture occupied a triangular area from the shores of Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay. This division likely reflects the differences between the earlier Princess Point and Point Peninsula cultures. The customary variances in pottery design differentiate the two cultures. Pickering villages seem, in addition, to have been somewhat smaller than those of the Glen Meyer.
The importance of agriculture and the sedentary nature of Iroquoian society grew rapidly during this period. The practice of matrilineal descent may have developed during the same time, no doubt influenced by the other changes in society such as the adoption of the longhouse, labour in the fields, population increase and the sedentary nature of village life.
Around 1300 C.E., the two main branches of the early Iroquoian period coalesced into a single unit. Significant cultural difference disappeared for a time. This melding of cultures has been attributed to conquest by the Pickering of the Glen Meyer people; however, there is no direct evidence to support this hypothesis. This permutation of Iroquoian culture is known as Uren and it existed for a mere fifty years, being replaced by the Middleport period from 1350 to 1400.
Many sites have been excavated from the Middleport period. The sites suggest lengthening longhouses, relatively few but large palisaded villages, and population growth. Sunflowers and tobacco appear to have been cultivated. Certainly, the smoking of tobacco became prominent. Beans and squash, important nutritional components of the historic Wendat diet, are found for the first time in Ontario around 1400 C.E.
The persistent east-west split reappeared one hundred years later when the historical Tionontatehronnon-Wendat and Neutral-Erie division of Ontario Iroquoians became clear. The tendency to gather in denser clusters of communities and for these clusters to move farther away from each other during this period led to the separate development of the various nations in the historic period. By the end of the Late Iroquoian period, the Wendat were consolidated in the northern half of Simcoe County and the Tionontatehronnon had sought a separate existence on the Niagara Escarpment south of Nottawasaga Bay.
The retreat into present day Simcoe County by the proto-Wendat was, no doubt, motivated by warfare. The nature of warfare may have changed in the Late Iroquoian period. Internecine conflict lessened, possibly as a result of military alliances against enemies farther afield. The primary enemy of the Wendat was likely the St. Lawrence Iroquoians before 1550. This warfare was particularly important to the groups in the Trent Valley. With the disappearance of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, the primary foe became the Five Nations to the south of Lake Ontario.
After 1550, the Seneca and Cayuga were at war with the Wendat living on the north shore of Lake Ontario. The Wendat in the Trent valley were probably engaged in a similar conflict with the Onondaga. These wars must have impelled the groups in the Trent valley to move northwest and those of Lake Ontario to move north.
The Jesuits reported that the Attignawantan had lived on the shores of Georgian Bay for at least two hundred years. Since there is ample evidence that the area was occupied during this period, there is little reason to doubt this assertion. The Attigneenongnahac likewise claimed to have lived for a considerable time in the area, but there is less certainty about this fact.
The Tahontaenrat and Arendarhonnon were recent migrants into Wendake in the historic period. The Arendarhonnon were, without a doubt, migrants from the Trent Valley. They arrived in their historic location in the extreme east of Wendake at the end of the 16th century.
The Tahontaenrat were a small nation likely from the Toronto area. They may have lived in Innisfil Township for a short time before continuing their journey north. They founded their village near Orr Lake around 1610. The Lake Ontario villages were populous prior to historic times. Bruce Trigger, one of the foremost authorities on Wendat history, suggests that the small numbers of the Tahontaenrat were insufficient to account for all of the migrants from south to north. Two theories explaining this demographic quandary have either the Tionontatehronnon or the Attigneenongnahac as making up the difference. The latter, it should be noted, were said to have been long-time inhabitants of Simcoe County. The Tionontatehronnon may have split from other groups travelling north from Lake Ontario. This may account for the reports of recent hostilities between the Wendat and Tionontatehronnon at contact. Another theory states that the Tionontatehronnon may have been the remnants of a population of Iroquoians who had lived on the shores of Lake Huron.
The development of the Iroquoian tradition in Ontario can be traced back to around 900 A.D to the construction of longhouses and palisaded villages and the widespread cultivation of corn. The roots of Wendat culture can likely be traced further back to the Princess Point and Point Peninsula cultures of the Woodland period. The acquisition of technology and new sources of food are evident in the archaeological record down to 1615. It seems surprising but 1615 marks the beginning of the historic period for the Wendat from the perspective of Western historiography. Before that date, historians are largely dependent on archaeology for information. After that date, the observations of Champlain, the Recollets, Jesuits and other European chroniclers become the primary sources. This point of view betrays a Western bias toward written culture that gives little credence to the oral histories of the First Nations themselves.