Approximately 13,000 years ago, the one-kilometre-thick glaciers of the last ice age melted northwards from southern Ontario, and in their wake, left behind large meltwater lakes. Geologists call one of those bodies of water – a kind of large version of Lake Ontario – ‘Lake Iroquois.’ Its water level was 40 metres higher than today’s lake, and thus its shoreline stood at the hill by Davenport Road (meaning that the present-day downtown was once underwater). Around 11,700 years ago, Lake Iroquois found a new outlet to the Atlantic Ocean – the St Lawrence – instead of its earlier Mohawk and Hudson river routes. That caused the lake to drain to a level 100 metres below that of today’s Lake Ontario by roughly 11,400 years ago, and thus its shoreline stood far to the south of the modern one.
Around 10,500-11,000 years ago, a small number of people moved into the cold sub-arctic landscape of ancient Ontario from the south to pursue the big game animals that preceded them. With the shoreline of ancient Lake Ontario lying about 20 kilometres south of modern Toronto, many of the campsites of these people are now lost to archaeologists. Nevertheless, from other sites in Ontario, we know that these early inhabitants fished and gathered but relied mainly on hunting caribou, as well as mammoths, mastodons, and smaller animals, in a region consisting of tundra and boreal forest. During the course of each year, they travelled across large distances in family-sized bands to sustain themselves.
By about 8,000 years ago, the climate had warmed to a point comparable to modern levels, which allowed for a new kind of temperate forest environment to evolve in southern Ontario. During this transition, much of the big game became extinct, the caribou drifted north, but white-tailed deer moved in to take their place. Another development that helped to define the Toronto area occurred between roughly 7,000 and 2,000 years ago: rising water levels in Lake Ontario and soil erosion from Scarborough Bluffs created the Toronto Islands, the harbour, and a mainland shoreline similar to the modern one.
At some point in the distant past, indigenous people discovered a convenient shortcut between Lake Ontario in the south and Georgian Bay in the north. Later known as the ‘Toronto Passage,’ main branches of this route ran north from the Humber and Rouge rivers, across the Oak Ridges Moraine, into the Lake Simcoe drainage basin, and then to Georgian Bay, Lake Huron, and the world beyond.
People expanded the range of foodstuffs they used to support themselves as the climate and environment evolved, with fishing in particular growing in importance. Over the millennia, these indigenous societies grew in complexity. For instance, related families began to congregate in large spring and summer camps near the mouths of rivers to catch fish, trade, and engage in communal social and spiritual events around 3,000 years ago. Physically, the increasing cultural maturity was represented by the introduction of such technological innovations as pottery and bows and arrows. The population also rose through the centuries, to roughly 10,000 in southern Ontario by about 1,500 years ago, with possibly 500 people living along each of the major rivers in the Toronto area. The various communities seem to have shared ideas and cultural practices widely with other groups, indicating that they engaged in a significant degree of interaction across Ontario and beyond. We see this archaeologically, for instance, by similarities in many of the excavated sites across the lower Great Lakes and by the presence of trade goods from far away, such as copper mined from surface deposits near Lake Superior and marine shell objects from today’s southern United States.
As part of the exchange of technologies and ideas in native North America, corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and tobacco were introduced into Ontario from the south. Scholars are uncertain as to when corn arrived, but they favour a point roughly 1,400 years ago. They disagree on whether the important crops of beans and squash appeared at the same time as corn or if they came in subsequent centuries. They also do not agree on whether the horticultural societies that emerged in Ontario arose from within the existing, long-standing population, or consisted of other native people who moved here from the south, or were a mix of indigenous and immigrant groups. Nevertheless, they believe that crops became increasingly important in people’s diets as the centuries passed. In the process, the move towards reliance on farming helped to shape the horticultural Iroquoian societies that developed about 1,100 years ago in the lower Great Lakes. (Iroquoians comprised people who belonged to the same language group, in contrast to the other main indigenous language group in the Great Lakes, the Algonkian.)
An important shift that came with the adaptation of horticulture was that people slowly abandoned much of the mobility that had characterized life in southern Ontario for thousands of years. In its place semi-permanent villages developed, from which people moved out during parts of the year to hunt, fish, gather, or otherwise meet their subsistence needs as supplements to the farming that lay at the heart of their work.
Iroquoian villages changed over time, and by a point about 700 years ago these communities reached their ‘classic’ appearance, typically consisting of longhouses, sometimes surrounded by defensive stockades, overlooking cultivated fields. Often Iroquoian villages were located on higher, defensible ground, but nevertheless, access to waterways and wetlands was important in choosing settlement locations because of their place in supporting fishing, hunting, and gathering, as well as for travelling for trade, diplomatic, and military purposes. There were early versions of these Iroquoian villages in the Toronto region starting about 1,100 years ago, although perhaps the most famous community from an archaeological perspective was the 15th-century Parsons site south of York University. Yet, other sites exist to tell us about Iroquoian Toronto, such as the important 14th-century Alexandra site in Scarborough, discovered only in 2000.
Iroquoian villages typically lasted from 10 to 20 years before their inhabitants relocated to new sites when the longhouses deteriorated, the fields became sterile, and people had to walk longer distances for firewood and other necessities that previously had been found close to home. After being abandoned, the old stockades and longhouses could be taken apart for building materials and firewood but eventually the forest reclaimed the former village sites and the soil gradually regained its fertility. During that process, the old settlements served as meadowlands and thinly forested environments, which attracted deer and helped to sustain the animal population that people utilized for food, clothing, and other materials.
In 1534, the French sailor Jacques Cartier journeyed up the St Lawrence River as far as modern Montreal. Cartier’s journey was the first well-documented record of European activity on the edge of the Great Lakes region. However, his memoirs clearly indicated that some of the aboriginal people he met on the St Lawrence had encountered whites previously, had traded furs for foreign goods, and had stored pelts in anticipation of future contacts. By the latter 16th century, some goods from across the Atlantic reached the natives of southern Ontario (as found archaeologically, for instance, at the Seed-Barker and Skandatut sites on the Humber River north of Toronto). These items were not carried here by Europeans; instead, they arrived with indigenous traders who obtained them farther east, either directly from Europeans, or from native intermediaries. At first, Europeans only came to the St Lawrence on a seasonal basis to fish and trade. Then, in 1608, the first successful permanent European settlement began on that river when Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec as part of his efforts to expand French trading opportunities in Canada, but a few more years would pass before the newcomers would enter today’s Ontario.
Although contact with Europeans sped up change among native peoples, the First Nations always had embraced new ideas and had responded creatively to fresh challenges. An example of substantial cultural change occurred when bands of Iroquoians amalgamated to form larger social groups or tribes, which in turn united into confederacies in a long process that began before contact with Renaissance-era Europeans. Sometimes groups moved substantial distances as part of the process of consolidation and reorganization. For instance, in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, the Iroquoians of the Toronto and neighbouring areas slowly moved north to the Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe region to join the developing Huron (or Wendat) confederacy in Huronia. Some also may have helped form the Petun (Tionnontaté) and Neutral (Atiouandaronk) societies that inhabited, respectively, the Nottawasaga Highlands and the area at the west end of Lake Ontario and in the Niagara Peninsula. With people concentrating their settlements to the north and elsewhere, the new Huron confederacy used the now-uninhabited Toronto part of their territory as a hinterland for hunting and other purposes, while the Toronto Passage itself continued to serve as a convenient north-south route.
The reasons behind the Iroquoian move away from Toronto are not completely clear to us today, although soil and other environmental conditions north of Toronto seem to have been attractive for growing crops and for other forms of subsistence for an increasing population, despite a somewhat shorter growing season near Georgian Bay. For instance, the more northerly region offered excellent fishing opportunities and access to the waterways that formed the great network of northern rivers and lakes that facilitated trade and inter-tribal relations. Warfare presumably also was a factor. On the one hand, consolidating neighbouring peoples who had been in conflict with each other brought peace on a regional basis, while on the other hand, these now-united societies could defend themselves better from enemies from farther away, such as the Iroquois (or Hodenosaunee) in modern New York. Additionally, religious reasons probably influenced their decision, in part because the formation of tribes and confederacies was a process that possessed strong spiritual underpinnings. Whatever the mix of reasons, the shift away from Toronto as an inhabited place to a hinterland between the 14th and 16th centuries reminds us that the aboriginal history of south-central Ontario was a complex one, marked by varying levels of occupation and differing use by native groups through time.