Discovery a glimpse into a 'completely different' life
Archeologist Ron Williamson was among those involved in identifying the human remains found during the construction of the West Shore Beach Club in Cumberland Beach. The bones have since been identified as ancestors of the Huron-Wendat First Nation.
Life on the shore of Lake Couchiching was dramatically different 500 years ago for the First Nations communities that inhabited the area.
This was a place covered in golden cornfields as far as the eye could see - an idyllic spot dotted with villages across the region that each supported about 1,500 inhabitants.
That long-forgotten part of northern Simcoe County's past was brought back into the light after an ancestral Huron ossuary was discovered Nov. 2.
The bones were discovered buried together in a circular pattern, said chief archeologist Ron Williamson, who was sent to the area to identify the bones and their current descendants.
"They are ossuaries, which are Huron-Wendat features," he said. "They are the folks in that area that buried their dead in pits (where burial took place after the grave's initial construction)."
Unearthed during the development of the West Shore Beach Club in Cumberland Beach, the Wendat bones hint at a community long-since forgotten; one whose history played out before European settlers arrived.
"When the Jesuits arrived in Huronia in the 1600s, they would get lost moving from one village to another, but instead of being lost in the forest, they were lost in the cornfields," said Williamson.
"It is a completely different life to have to imagine."
In the matriarchal society of the time, life and labour were divided down gender lines. While women tended the massive expanses of cornfields, did the sewing and reared young, men would hunt, fish and clear the forests of wood, said Williamson.
Men were also called upon to protect the settlement from any feuding or warfare that threatened daily life.
In the mid-1600s, Wendat numbers were decimated by infectious disease, mainly smallpox introduced by the Jesuits.
With their population dwindling and unable to defend against the onslaught of Iroquois attacks, the survivors of this period divided into two groups in Canada: the Great-Lake Wyandot and the Huron-Wendat.
In Wendat tradition, people who died while the village was active would be placed together to create a community of the dead.
Williamson said the Wendats believed that the dead possessed two souls - one that went to the 'Sky World' at death and one that remained with the bones.
Like a living village that needs water to survive, Wendat remains are almost always buried within 250 metres of a body of water, Williamson said.
It will remain unknown exactly how many souls rest in the community of the dead found in Cumberland Beach, as there is no planned excavation of the site.
"Nobody wants them moved. It won't be (excavated). It will be protected," said Williamson, referring to an agreement between the developers of the planned beachfront properties and the Wendat-Huron First Nation, which was contacted when the bones were discovered.
"The project can go forward without moving them. The developer has been extremely sensitive about working with the First Nation about a course of action."