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  • Writer's pictureArt Duval

Part 1-Life in Prehistoric Times in Huronia (Village Life)

To understand what I am going to be telling you, you need to forget all you know. The Pre-contact native people of this continent developed their culture and way of living independent of all outside influences. This culture and way of life did not include money, and it's influence.

They have been here too long to really be influenced by anything prior to getting here. (so we should study them as completely independent people)Some aspects of Wendat and Weskarini life can be attributed to things and people south of here, corn, for instance, came from the south. Other things may also have come from the south, there are aspects that seem similar. However, I am no expert and will only tell you what I know.

The people who lived in Huronia had no money, but that didn't mean they were poor. They simply did not have a monetary system. Wealth was embodied and alive. It existed in the soil and the plants, the animals and the people. You didn't take everything, you only took what you needed, this sustained the resource and by the process, your wealth. You didn't cast aside orphans or disabled or widowed as they could also add to your wealth.

You had the bravery to go to war, but also the sagest to avoid it. Greed and selfishness did not suit, you were only as wealthy as your village. That did not mean it was idyllic, nor that it was always peaceful or easy. They, like us, are humans, imperfect people in an imperfect world.

Walking through the bush I sometimes wonder how the native peoples of the area lived. For a while now I have been doing this, only my idea keeps changing and evolving as I research those times.

The world was a lot different, what is now young hardwood forests was ancient and more deciduous cedar and pine. Late 19th and early 20th-century logging have reduced the old growth in our area. According to historical records, Penetang was described as a cedar swamp. Early historic records of the early logging in Penetang has pine as a major product. So what is now mostly hardwood, was then more pine and cedar. One elderly tree, estimated to be 250 years old is a black maple, one that does not today grace our forest, save for some older examples. So the climate has changed. Additionally, except for where the villages and fields were, there was very little logging, in fact, the clearings they did make for fields and villages probably were not clear cut of all trees and bushes. So most of the land was old growth, large trees wit a more open floor.

What I thought of as single longhouses and small collections of wigwams now appear to be combinations of both, at least seasonally.

The village had large fields, and as one field and village was being used, another village was being prepared for. When after a certain amount of time it was time to move, the village was moved to the other side of the field and was built and settled in. The village would them turn to clear another field for planting, while still working the old field. So a person could travel through time, simply by retracing their footsteps. Unless it was decided to move at a greater distance, which was a decision not taken lightly, as it was a dangerous and labour intensive thing to do.

The old village and field clearings would remain visible, although the buildings had been moved to the new village, (A field my Grandfather cut 50 or 70 years ago is not yet overgrown.) Remnants were still visible So long that AF Hunter could describe them very well in the mid 18th century.

Going back to the movement of villages, when the village moved, so did the elders who had passed on. Carrying the remains, that was simply bones at that point, the villagers would have a feast for the dead and rebury the bones. This was all chronicled by Father Jean de Brebeuf as he called it "the feast of the dead".

Those elders who had passed on had been placed on scaffolds until only bones remained, and those bones would be placed in burial pits. These pits would hold many objects deemed essential for the afterlife.

So one site is not one village, but a string of sites can be attributed to one group of people. I assume that the village was named after the people, and this semi-nomadic way made various places the same people. PAths and there was a network of them, were probably called by the villagers' name, as they would lead to those people. The villages were independent, but larger nations existed. For example, Bear Nation had territory along the Penetang Peninsula, with many villages occupying space. This territory extended right to Wyebridge. All of these villages were separate, but dating can still be done because styles of pottery kept up with the times and all villages made certain pottery at certain era's.

It was not unusual to travel far distances. We know about the Wendat due to their ability to find their way to Montreal and trade with their old neighbours there. (As the Wendat appear to have originated along the river St Lawrence)

The reconstructed villages of today are palisaded, but the archaeology does not show that was the case very often before the problems with the mohawks. (Even some villages after the Mohawk issue were not palisaded.)

(Pallisades are walls around the village)

The longhouses housed all the people of your family, your food, like corn was hung to be dried, furs would be stretched and hides tanned. Although not like modern homes, you could probably find an area of warmth or coolness at any time of the year. Wood would be gathered and piled by the doors. In winter a fire would probably be burning at all times and elders would probably be teaching crafts to the younger members of the clan at most times. These crafts were as essential as hunting or fishing skill. A hunter would only be as good as his tools he was given, or made with his own hands. Knapping and grinding stone tools were something that had to be taught and learned for the continued success of the village.

The villages were not without bureaucrats, there were many leaders or chiefs. Some dealt with internal issues, some with trade, there were war chiefs and Grand Chiefs. The villages had a hierarchy and meetings and councils were probably regularly held.

Now, most of this information is on the Wendat, because we knew the Wendat. They were sedentary and had longhouses, which lead to easier to define archaeological evidence, but they were not alone. The Iroquoian Wendat had alliances with the Weskarini (Algonquin). These alliances were symbiotic, the Wendat had an agrarian way about them, they planted crops, and the Weskarini were hunter-gatherers. This stabilized both societies, the Wendat could concentrate on farming, while the Algonquin could do the hunting and gathering. In winter the nomadic Weskarini could put down roots and lean on the Wendat. In summer the Wendat could join in the hunts with the Weskarini.

Interestingly the culture and language of both parties seemed to live on. The Weskarini continued to live their way of life, and the Wendat continued theirs. The Weskarini showed the Wendat some things they had learned and the Wendat returned the favour.

Now, was it idyllic? No. Many decisions were paramount to survival. Village placement could be a strong indicator of whether the village thrived or survived at all. Every possible advantage and danger had to be assessed. When the Mohawk invasions forced the villagers to hide their villages, they came up with an ingenious solution. Centuries before the water was much higher. When the water receded, the beaches, rivers and creeks were now high and dry. The rivers and creeks covered over in soil, but the stones of the river bed still held and filtered water. The Wendat found these beaches and used these springs to get fresh water. This allowed them to distance themselves from waterways.

Crop planting, fishing expeditions, hunting trips, all could go well or wrong and would influence and affect their lives for months if not years.

Raiding could result in the loss of valuable resources, fires in a longhouse could wipe out reserves held for the long winter months. Many things could lead to starvation, many things could lead to death.

The Wendat grew mainly vegetables in the three sisters mound. They would heap pile of dirt and plant the "sisters" Corn, beans and squash, together and they would grow symbiotically. Made into a mash with a little meat or fish, the Wendat would eat this often.

The Jesuits who came later would hate it!

Tobacco was dried and smoked in pipes as well as sweet-grass and sage. The longhouse would have been smoky, from fire and pipes, but this would have meant also that it was a refuge from blackflies and mosquitoes. These items also had a cultural significance, as fire, tobacco and sage all contributed to ceremonies and councils.

The one thing you would not find in the villages is money or any monetary means whatsoever. Prior to the Europeans coming, a monetary system was not known. Trade was rampant and far-reaching, but there was no money being exchanged. This had some interesting cultural differences.

Without money, wealth was measured in the quality of your soil, the abundance of game, and the power, goodwill of your entourage. Military power could gain you some of that wealth, but being always at war with your neighbours could also have negative effects. The Wendat were peaceful, to the point of removing themselves far from the conflicts happening in the east, but alas that didn't help them. In the time prior to that, life would seem to have been peaceful.

I won't get too far into religion, as I do not have the knowledge of such, however, the people were not without religion. It was not housed in a church, or housed at all as it was everywhere and in everything. Respect for the land, flora and fauna was at the core of the beliefs.

Family life I also won't go into in-depth, however, I will say, family ties and village ties, even nation ties were ties that bind. In a longhouse, all adult men are father or Grandfather and all adult women are mother or Grandmother so that a child was never orphaned, and a wife never widowed, as least as far as essentials were concerned. This meant that monogamy was loosely followed and sexuality was in a different context to what we know. This drove the Jesuits crazy when they came, but it was the way the society developed and when compared to the more "civilized" societies was not so bad after all.

It is sometimes suggested that this world was uncivilized, but I dare say that could not be further from the truth. It was probably hard at times, but they understood the value off life and peaceful existence. Greed would not suit, as money did not exist and wealth could not be amassed. Wars and conflicts dd exist, but peaceful means, like Lacrosse (the little brother of war) was also used to avert heavy losses.

There was politics, medicine, education, all signs of civility...

This blog started as a single small blog and is now in two parts. I suspect the two parts will not hold the whole story I want to tell so... expect many parts.

Art Duval, Pipesmoke of the Past.

PS: Stay tuned for part 2 Life in Prehistoric Huronia (In Living Colour)

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