'Mantle' Site, Ancient 'New York City' Of Canada, Found On Lake Ontario Shore

Ontario:  Move over, New York City.  Between 1500 - 1530 A.D.,  a settlement on the north shores of Lake Ontario was the biggest most complex, cosmopolitan place in the region.

The so-called Mantle Site was settled by the Wendat (Huron). Recent excavations have found  98 longhouses, a palisade of three rows (a fence made of heavy wooden stakes and used for defense) and about 200,000 artifacts.

"This is an Indiana Jones moment, this is huge," said archaeologist Ron Williamson. "It just seems to be a game-changer in every way.  It's the largest, most complex, cosmopolitan village of its time. All of the archaeologists, basically, when they see Mantle, they're just utterly stunned."

Scientists estimate that 1,500 -1,800 people lived at Mantle, which was the size of today's Manhattan. Just to clothe themselves, they needed 7,000 deer hides every year.

"When you think about a site like Mantle, 2,000 people, massive stockade around a community, a better analogy is that of a medieval town," Jennifer Birch from the University of Georgia. "While the cultures are very different, the societal form really isn't."

Despite its massive size, the Mantle site remained hidden for hundreds of years, probably because longhouses were made mostly of wood, which doesn't preserve well.

Not all of the 98 longhouses were used at once. New longhouses were built on top of the older ones.  At one point 55 longhouses were in use at the same time.

mantle site

Charred wood found in one post mould suggests that when one of the longhouses burned down, the rest of the settlement was saved. This is remarkable, Williamson said, because the flammable wooden longhouses were built very close together.

"Somehow their 'fire department' did that," he said. 

Mantle had a cosmopolitan nature that suggests extensive contacts and trade. Two discoveries -- copper beads and a wrought iron object -- are the earliest European goods ever found in the Great Lakes area and predate the area's first known European explorers by 100 years. The objects may have arrived in the New World by Spanish fisherman and whalers who sailed to Newfoundland and Labrador in the 1500s.

While it appears that the Mantle people had trading relations with the Iroquois along the St. Lawrence. "Historically, we know that the Huron and the Iroquois were not only at odds, they were mortal enemies," Williamson said. In fact, the widespread warfare throughout southern Ontario, New York, Michigan and Quebec were known as "the dark times."

However, Mantle, with its large size and palisade defense, may have discouraged this type of warfare, making an attack risky.

Williamson noted that, sadly, with the arrival of Europeans, this peace did not last.  "When Europeans arrive the whole thing is re-fired over economic reasons related to the fur trade," he said.

Today, seven years after excavations wrapped up, only a small portion of the Mantle site remains. Houses were built on top of it after the dig was complete.

"We did not have the planning legislation in place to preserve these sites like we do today," Williamson said. "If the site were found today there would be far more exploration of options to preserve it."