Construction Workers Discover Indigenous Burial Ground in Toronto

Researchers who investigated the site estimate that it’s about 700 years old

Burial Up Close
Workers discovered this Indigenous ossuary while digging in Toronto. Philip Cote

While installing a water line last week, a Toronto construction crew came across human remains from a 700-year-old Indigenous burial ground.

After realizing what they’d stumbled upon, workers notified law enforcement. Officials then brought in forensic anthropologist Greg Olson to examine the site on Withrow Avenue, a residential street in the city’s Riverdale neighborhood.

Olson, who works for the Ontario Forensic Pathology Service, tells CTV News that the discovery is “definitely a burial of Indigenous remains.” The recent find is just one of many similar discoveries that have been made nearby.

“There seems to be a run on them,” Olson tells the Art Newspaper’s Hadani Ditmars. “This is my fifth confirmation of a Native burial site in the Toronto area in the past four months.”

Site From Street
The site was discovered on a residential street in the city's Riverdale neighborhood. Philip Cote

This particular site already has a rich archaeological record. It lies about 30 feet away from a plaque commemorating another discovery of Indigenous remains at what’s known as the “Withrow Site” in 1886. Those excavations revealed “a possible 700-year-old ossuary”—a chamber or container housing bones.

In 1986, on the 100th anniversary of that discovery, archaeologist Mima Kapches wrote a research note for the Ontario Archaeological Society journal summing up existing documentation of the Withrow Site.

In her piece, Kapches cited an 1886 account of the find from the Toronto Evening Telegram: “The soil is sandy and easily dug,” it read. “Upwards of 30 skeletons seem to have been buried in one pit, and as many more in another a few yards off.” A stone ax, a barbed arrowhead, a knife and a chisel made of slate were also unearthed at that time.

Still, Kapches wrote, “what exactly is known about the site is far from clear from the documentary sources available.” The plaque at the site notes similar concerns: The 19th-century excavations were “not meticulous,” it reads, “and many of the remains were lost.”

Cote and Group
Indigenous activist Philip Cote (front left) gathered with a group of people for a ceremony at the site Philip Cote

Last week, Olson examined the new site with this record in mind. He discovered a box of “fragmented long bones,” per the Art Newspaper, and caught sight of human bones extending into the pit’s sidewall. “I started to remove some of the bone to see what I could determine—but it began to crumble in my hand,” he says. “I worked my way back and found a portion of jaw with teeth and found some central incisors that had fallen out.”

Those teeth helped Olson learn more about the dead. The molars were worn down by eating stone-ground corn, and the front teeth were of a “shovel-like” shape, which is common in Native American and Asian populations. Olson estimates the newly discovered remains are between 700 and 1,000 years old.

Indigenous settlements in the surrounding area date back as far as 13,000 years, as Jon Johnson, a historian at the University of Toronto and a leader of the Indigenous history group First Story Toronto, tells Candace Maracle of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Johnson thinks the newly discovered gravesite belongs to the Wendat nation, explaining that when a nearby school was being built in the ’70s, construction workers found remains and artifacts from the Wendat people.

“The Wendat have a very long presence in Toronto,” he says. “There’s hundreds and hundreds of Wendat sites in the Toronto area alone.”

The Wendat are an Iroquoian-speaking nation that has long occupied the St. Lawrence Valley and Great Lakes estuary, per the Canadian Encyclopedia. Before 1600, the community was at least 20,000 strong. Just a few decades later, between 1634 and 1642, devastating diseases spread by the Europeans reduced the Wendat population to about 9,000. As Olson tells the CBC, the Wendat people moved around regularly to plant crops in fresh soil. Before they traveled, they would rebury their dead in an ossuary—“exactly what we're finding here.”

Olson reinterred the remains and held a tobacco ceremony before closing the area, according to the CBC. To determine the next steps, the provincial bereavement authority is now in talks with the Six Nations and Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, who share rights to the land, according to the Art Newspaper.

Philip Cote, an Indigenous activist and historian, tells Smithsonian magazine that he and a large group held a “feast sacred fire ceremony” at the burial site “in honor of our ancestors.”

The Riverdale neighborhood, where the remains were found, is “rich with Indigenous history,” Cote tells CityNews Toronto’s Shauna Hunt and Meredith Bond. “Those people, they have been here a long time, and they are coming to the surface, and they want us to tell their story.”

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