Ancestoral Bones

When is a hill not just a hill?

When it’s actually an ossuary – or the site of human skeletal remains.

This is what I recently discovered about a hill not far from my home.  Rather than being a natural bump on the landscape, it is actually a First Nations burial ground designated as a historical site.

Taber Hill 9In a ceremony called the Huron Feast of the Dead, it was the practice of the Wyandot people to move the remains of deceased relatives from their individual graves and rebury them in a final communal grave.  Since it was their practice to move the community every 10 to 15 years as the resources of the area were depleted, placing their loved ones in communal graves was believed to provide them with protection in the afterlife.

Under a gray overcast sky in the heat and humidity of a Toronto summer day, I made my way up Tabor Hill.  The sign is rather misleading because this isn’t really a park.  This hill as been designated as a cemetery.

Taber Hill 6

The discovery was made 60 years ago when the site was being developed for a new residential area.  When construction equipment pulled up a shovel full of bones, work was stopped and the area subsequently protected by the city as parkland.

At the top of the mound now rests a large stone cairn with plaques dedicating the site.

Taber Hill 2
It was subsequently determined that the site dates back to the 1400s and contains the remains of over 500 persons

Around the same time, university students found evidence of a First Nations village a few kilometres away.

Birkdale Park
Birkdale Ravine

Then less than 20 years ago, a much larger village site was uncovered a few kilometres further north in L’Amoreaux Park.

It is estimated that it supported a population of up to 1000 people.

Taber Hill 10
View of the quiet Scarborough neighbourhood from the top of the burial mound

The No Tobogganing sign I found at the bottom of the hill may seem rather mean-spirited if you don’t appreciate that the hill is in fact a cemetery.  Back in the 1990s, concerns were raised by First Nations that this ground was not being respected as sacred and the cairn was routinely defaced by graffiti – often racist in tone.

As a result, tobogganing – which was very popular on the hill – was subsequently banned, but the ‘park’ sign has yet to be changed.

Taber Hill

I can’t help but wonder if the people who live in this quiet neighbourhood understand the significance of the hill in their front yard.  Their first clue would be from the names of the streets in the area …

… but given the garbage I picked up on my way down the hill, it makes me sad to know that there are those who simply don’t care.

 

 

86 comments

  1. Joanne, it’s amazing to me that there are so many archaeologists in N. America, and that we seem to know relatively little about the Native American mounds that are scattered around the country. I understand that these are sacred burial grounds, but there are all sorts of non-intrusive technologies that would make exploration possible and informative. And BTW, it looks like the kind of spot that teenagers would gather to tell ghosts stories on date night. 🙂 ~James

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  2. Fascinating, especially the name Tabor Hill (or Taber Hill if I see correctly on one of the plaques). I could google where the name comes from but instead I’ll tell you that in Slovenian “tabor” means camp. I don’t think any Slavs are responsible for naming this hill.

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  3. You find the neatest places! The litter would drive me nuts. I often pick up the trash I find on my hikes, and walks. I hope the signage improves to deter litter, and invoke a more respectful, and reverent attitude while there.

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      • None what so ever!

        I saddened and happy to see the city put a garbage can up at my tree on top of the Steep Hill. Sadly too many people were leaving their water bottles, and snack wrappers. I would routinely pick the crap up, and carry a garbage bag up there. I find it disheartening that the bloody garbage can was needed at all!
        If you love nature, and hiking enough to do it why leave your garbage there? If you pack it in, pack it out! It’s annoying and at times infuriating. Climbing off my soapbox now. 😊

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  4. That does make me sad Joanne, especially the garbage you found. It seems like the park needs a huge sign or signs. It looks a bit forlorn I have to say. You are the master of finding these little known spots. I think the City of Toronto should hire you to make recommendations!

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  5. On our Canadian west coast, which is rich in indigenous culture, there are many significant First Nations cultural sites and burial grounds everywhere that I have lived and travelled. However, on my visits to Toronto, I have not seen any historical First Nations sites, so it was very interesting to read about this burial mound.

    Jude

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    • That’s actually a good point about Toronto. Only recently – as a result of this post – have I seen a few markers, but they’re all pretty low key … like the one marking this burial mound. A marker at the top of the hill isn’t going to be prominent enough to inform passersby.

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  6. It will be interesting to see how long it is before the word “Indian” is replaced on the signage. Some First Nations have decided the word should be changed. I think it should be up to the First Nations to initiate the change if they desire it, and decide on what the new name should be.

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  7. What an amazing piece of history. I’m glad they’ve protected it. Too bad that don’t let you know that at the bottom of the hill. I know there are many mounds in Florida, but I don’t think that I’ve actually seen one.

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    • Several people have mentioned mounds in Florida which completely surprised me. It never occurred to me that there would have been First Nations tribes in Florida. Now of course I appreciate how stupid that sounds 😏

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  8. Amazing. Every culture is so different in the ways that they handle the memories of their ancestors. I’ve heard the term Indian Mound, but never put together what it could mean. Great post, interesting photos.

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    • What surprised me was how innocuous a mound could look. This hill could easily be overlooked as such a hill – in fact it likely is. It’s a reminder that there are interesting things surrounding us if only we take the time to ‘see’ it.

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  9. I’m glad the place was protected from destruction, Joanne. I hope that more can be done to educate those who visit the “park” that it’s indeed a cemetery and should be treated with more respect. It’s such interesting history, and there’s so much opportunity to learn. Thanks for sharing this unique site in your home.

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  10. Fascinating history, Joanne. It’s been so long since I’ve had a chance to visit blogs. Nice to be here and see a bit of what you’ve been up to!

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    • Hi Laurie – so nice to see you too!! The past couple of months have been so busy that I too have been very neglectful in the blogging world … and the summer is still ramping up 🙂

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  11. I agree with Dan’s comment about sometimes forgetting that we aren’t the first. Here in Australia, we have the Aboriginal Indigineous race who were here 1,000s of years before the First Fleet.

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  12. That is mind-boggling. It’s just sorta there, and people may not know what it is? Despite their street names? I’m having a hard time grasping this. Here, the mounds are so protected, even revered, them being marked and sectioned off doesn’t even seem necessary, but they are.
    Ours (here, most nearby) are not ‘burial’ in the same way, but layers of ashes in clay and ground limestone. (That’s what’s here.)
    I’m glad you picked up the litter. Goodness, I hope you told everyone you know that it’s there.
    I guess we should be glad they didn’t just go ahead and dig it up. This just makes me sad. It should be called what it is.

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    • I share your feelings. There is nothing to indicate what this hill really is until you climb to the top and make the effort to read the plaque. It should be called what it really is. It’s NOT a park.

      I admit I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to litter and even one or two pieces will annoy me extremely – like this particular day. Picking it up was a no brainer.

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  13. It’s wonderful to find something so important that truly is history. We tend to only consider history beginning when we arrived.

    I don’t understand people who littler.

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    • I may be a little harsh, but I think anyone who deliberately litters because they are too lazy or indifferent to carry it out with them is a low life-form 😡

      I have trouble wrapping my head around hundreds of years ago. I try to imagine the world that they lived in. These are sites within a large metropolitan city but the world these people lived in would have looked very, very different. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t approve of what we’ve done.

      Developers over the years decided to bury or reroute dozens of streams. In fact I learned only a few years ago that there is a stream buried beneath the space between our house and that of our neighbour.

      Don’t you wish sometimes you could peak back into time?

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      • I do! I watch the news as we’re working so hard to put a pipeline through sacred Indian ground. It’s bad enough that we relocated the tribes a dozen times, now we can’t show a little respect for their customs. It wouldn’t cost that much more to go around the site.

        I see litter in the park, within 50 feet of a trash can and I just shake my head. It’s such a disturbing lack of respect,

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  14. Fascinating, Joanne. I’m with you in my hatred of litter. It’s lazy, disrespectful, and completely unnecessary! I’m also often depressed at the lack of civility and outright nastiness of so many these days. You may disagree vehemently, but if we can’t agree to disagree without hatred, we’re in big trouble. But Su is also right that there are also a plethora of lovely people. You just don’t hear about them or of them.

    janet

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    • I was thinking the same thing. Organizing a 1000 people through a transition of location at that time would have taken some very good leadership to survive … especially in our climate!

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  15. Amazing what we can find near our own homes. I really enjoy your documentary of local adventures! I first heard of Indian burial mounds when I lived and worked in rural Mississippi. Many towns are named after tribes and there are several mounds nearby. During that same time period I also worked a lot in New Orleans where there are large above ground tombs housing the remains of large extended families – sometimes over centuries. I like the idea of communal burial, if one needs to be buried…I’ve also witnessed the disrespect of litter and graffiti. So sad.

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    • The last couple of years I’ve devoted a lot of energy to being a tourist in my own city. The result has been eye-opening. Over the last 20 years I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of travelling around the world and am now discovering all the cool stuff in my own ‘backyard’.

      New Orleans has long been on my list of places I’d like to visit. The large above ground tombs are certainly a major draw. I guess the truth is, I find cemeteries really fascinating.

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  16. Since Florida was first inhabited by various Indian tribes, we have a few of these.They have mostly been discovered by developers. When there is a discovery, its archaeological significance is determined before building can commence. Sometimes construction is allowed to continue and sometimes not – resulting in a few beautiful parks in Florida that preserve the history of our first settlers. One that comes to mind is Peace Mound Park in Weston, where I lived many years ago. It was designated a Park and has a historical marker with information about the site. We loved that it was preserved as a “passive” park, and enjoyed walking there. Mostly, people were respectful, but sadly, humans will be humans.

    Another informative post Joanne. What is this “book” that one of your readers referred to? Can we expect more of this type of post in the future? Enjoyable read while I await the Wimbledon finals this morning. Take care.

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    • I think you’re right – the majority of people are respectful, decent, and exercise common sense … but then there is a minority of those who just aren’t 😕

      Earlier this year I was introduced to a book called the Top 150 Unusual Things To See in Ontario. It’s been the inspiration behind several things I’ve done and written about – and yes, there are still many more 🙂

      Hope you have a great week. As much as we desperately need rain, I’m hoping the predicted thunderstorms don’t happen until much later this evening after I’m home from a day trip!

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  17. What a fascinating history! I love that book you have and so appreciate you going out and exploring all 150 places (you are going to visit all 150, right?). Cemeteries are my “thing” but I’ve never seen a mound cemetery before. I really like the idea of mingling the bones so they all have company in the afterlife.

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    • Yes, you and I share that interest in cemeteries. They really are quite fascinating but unfortunately they rarely ‘talk’ to me so that I have a story to tell.

      Yes, I am slowly chugging my way through the book. I’ve now see 32 of the places in the book – some of course I visited before I bought the book. Of the 32 I’ve visited, at some point I’ve written about 25 of them 🙂
      It seems I’m more prolific than I thought I was!

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    • I had heard of these mounds in Britain and in Newfoundland – from the Vikings, but this is the first I’d heard of them otherwise in North America. I learn something new everyday.

      … and when it comes to litter, well, people suck. I just don’t understand the mentality.

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  18. Oh, wonderful! What you found. (And sad, the lack of respect for this place.)
    I first learned of this practice of bringing the dead along to a new place with the rest of the community when I read The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden. And now you found an actual site. Thank you for sharing, Joanne!

    Deb

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    • I’ve heard The Orenda is a great book but I haven’t read it. I would never have guessed this hill was a burial site – and quite frankly, I doubt I would have even paid enough attention to the rock on top to bother climbing up the hill to see if it had a plaque on it.
      This is another great find thanks to the book 150 Unusual Things to See in Ontario.

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  19. Very interesting piece of history. I remember when I was a child that we didn’t even walk on someone’s grass let alone a respected area like this. It’s a different world today, and I applaud your picking up the trash you encountered. I’m sure it is appreciated by the ancestors of the deceased and those that value historical sites.

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    • I’m of that generation too! Of course you don’t walk on someone’s grass!! I’m actually uncomfortable in cemeteries and the thought that I’m walking on graves. It’s impossible not to and it feels so disrespectful.

      I don’t always pick up litter when I encounter it, but sometimes – like this occasion – it felt wrong not to.

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    • I had heard of these burial mounds before – but not here. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. It really is an unassuming-looking hill – but so significant once you know what it is.

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  20. All places I’ve explored and written about it my own travels in my home borough. Great to read your take too, Joanne.

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  21. Hi Joanne,

    You ALWAYS find the fascinating stories behind the seemingly ordinary places and events. You really are the poster child of the highly curious individual. Your site name could not be more appropriate.

    So you’re in Scarborough? I’d always assumed, for some strange reason, that you were west end Toronto. It must be because you get around 🙂

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    • I am in Scarborough and have been for a long time. I actually don’t know the west end of the city and whenever I venture out that way, I feel a little lost 🙂

      There is just so much to discover and I’m constantly surprised by what I find.

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  22. It is incredibly sad to read that people can’t / won’t show respect for sacred places. I suppose, by comparison with many indigenous cultures, “western” societies seem to have a more cavalier attitude to death and burial, but respecting other cultures is a pretty fundamental building block of civilized society.

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  23. It does look like a fun place to toboggan. Until some hand reaches out from beneath the snow and grabs your ankle. It’s a good thing they stopped that residential project. I think I saw a movie about what happens to houses built over Indian burial grounds.

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  24. Interesting site. We have many Indian shell mounds around here, but the focus is on oyster shells, not on human remains.

    I hear you about litter, etc. Some people are ______ [you fill in the blank].

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