By Wayne Curtis

Photo of people participating in an archaeological excavation using shovels and sifter on the shore of Lake Ontario.
Students test sites along the Lake Ontario shoreline in the Kawartha, some of which are only accessible by canoe.

In September 2009, contractors were digging a foundation for a new building at a nonprofit summer camp on a 104-acre island in Pigeon Lake in south-central Ontario. Human remains were uncovered and, following protocol, the work was halted. 

In this area of abundant and attractive lakes and waterways, summer home development is ongoing and it is not uncommon to find the remains of First Nation ancestors, who lived in the area for hundreds of generations, when the earth is dug up. It turns out that summer dwellers 5,000 years ago sought the same as summer dwellers today: a waterfront location.

A cultural resources management firm was summoned to Jacob Island to assess the site. They did not find randomly scattered bones, but found what appeared to be an organized burial site. A woman and infant had been interred near the main construction area. Other test pits nearby turned up more remains, which suggested a far more extensive mortuary site. A representative of the Curve Lake Anishinabek First Nation was called in, and after some discussion all agreed that a full assessment of the site should be undertaken. 

 “It snowballed into a much larger study,” said James Conolly, an archaeologist and anthropology professor at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, who arrived at the site shortly after the initial discovery. “I thought it would be a three- or four-day job,” he said. “It ended up taking three or four years.” 

Conolly’s intrigue deepened when the excavations failed to turn up ceramics or other artifacts that would date this to the Woodland archaeological period, when burial grounds were common. Instead, early lithic artifacts more typical of the late Archaic period were found – a time in which ceremonial burial grounds are a relative rarity. Recovered animal and human bones were sent out for radiocarbon dating. The results ultimately confirmed what the artifacts suggested: this was a much earlier burial site than was first assumed. Indeed, it’s now the earliest known burial site uncovered in the region. 

This is an article excerpt from the Summer 2023 edition of American Archaeology Magazine.  Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription!


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