July 10, 2012
By: Owen Jarus, LiveScience Contributor
Published: 07/10/2012 10:12 AM EDT on LiveScience
Today New York City is the Big Apple of the Northeast but new research reveals that 500 years ago, at a time when Europeans were just beginning to visit the New World, a settlement on the north shore of Lake Ontario, in Canada, was the biggest, most complex, cosmopolitan place in the region.
Occupied between roughly A.D. 1500 and 1530, the so-called Mantle site was settled by the Wendat (Huron). Excavations at the site, between 2003 and 2005, have uncovered its 98 longhouses, a palisade of three rows (a fence made of heavy wooden stakes and used for defense) and about 200,000 artifacts. Dozens of examples of art have been unearthed showing haunting human faces and depictions of animals, with analysis ongoing.
Now, a scholarly book detailing the discoveries is being prepared and a documentary about the site called "Curse of the Axe" aired this week on the History Channel in Canada.
"This is an Indiana Jones moment, this is huge," said Ron Williamson, an archaeologist who led dig efforts at the site, in the documentary shown in a premiere at the Royal Ontario Museum. "It just seems to be a game-changer in every way." [See Photos of the Mantle Site Artifacts]
Williamson is the founder of Archaeological Services Inc., a Canadian cultural resource management firm that excavated the site.
"It's the largest, most complex, cosmopolitan village of its time," said Williamson, also of the University of Toronto, in an interview with LiveScience. "All of the archaeologists, basically, when they see Mantle, they're just utterly stunned."
The Mantle people
Scientists estimate between 1,500 and 1,800 individuals inhabited the site, whose fields encompassed a Manhattan-size area. To clothe themselves they would have needed 7,000 deer hides annually, something that would have required hunting about 26 miles (40 km) in every direction from the site, Williamson said.
"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, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Georgia, said in the documentary. "While the cultures are very different, the societal form really isn't."
Despite its massive size, the site remained hidden for hundreds of years, likely escaping detection because its longhouses were primarily made of wood, which doesn't preserve well.
Not all of the 98 longhouses were in use at the same time, with more recent ones having been built on top of the older longhouses, as buildings are today. At one point 55 longhouses were in use at once.
Charred wood found in one of the post moulds suggested that when one of the longhouses burnt down the rest of the settlement was saved. Williamson said that this is remarkable considering the longhouses were made of wood, which was very flammable, and close together. "Somehow their 'fire department' did that."
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