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Lower St. Lawrence


«On the shores of the St. Lawrence River, the members of an Iroquoian family set off in a canoe for Île Verte, where they have established their camp. Lying at the bottom of the canoe are a few baked-clay pots, some eels and two beavers.

Eventually the group reaches a little bay, where a fish-drying rack and pelt stretcher mark the location of their camp.»


Because of its geographic situation and landscape features, the Lower St. Lawrence is a strategic region in eastern Quebec. It covers a vast territory, traversed by major communication routes such as the St. John River, which links the St. Lawrence estuary to the Bay of Fundy on the Atlantic coast via a series of smaller rivers and portages, notably in the Lake Témiscouata area. Some 10 000 years ago, these routes were followed by the first people to venture into northern New England. The St. John River route, in particular, was used throughout the prehistoric period.



Groups of various origins visited the Lower St. Lawrence in this early period. The region lay at the crossroads of major communication routes, with the St. John River to the south and the mouth of the Saguenay on the opposite shore of the St. Lawrence River. For the First Nations people in the prehistoric period, knowledge of these enormous river systems was vital. Many of their portage routes were adopted by European newcomers in the 17th and 18th centuries.


In the Lower St. Lawrence region, the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains grow gradually higher as they recede southward, with those furthest from the shore reaching 900 metres. The human populations occupying this territory in the prehistoric period knew how to make use of the resources found both inland and along the shore. The numerous and diverse resources of the shore area made it particularly attractive to the First Nations people during seasons that were free of snow.



The narrow strip of lowlands along the river was at this time covered with softwood forests where spruce, fir and pine flourished. The First Nations people who settled along the shore thus had access to a variety of wood and bark. They used these materials to make diverse tools, containers, boats and dwellings. Wood was burned to provide heat, cook food and smoke game. Camps were set up on terraces that could be found from the present water level to an altitude of 180 metres. These terraces, representing ancient beaches left by the retreating Goldthwait Sea, are characteristic of the region and attracted human occupation throughout the prehistoric period.


The region’s beaches and sheltered coves offered abundant resources to the first humans to come here. Depending on the season, they could hunt numerous shore birds, such as black ducks, eider ducks, Canada geese and snow geese. From spring until early winter, the shallow waters of the shore were full of fish like salmon, sturgeon and smelt, a species that comes to fresh water to spawn. In summer, saltwater species such as herring and cod could be caught not far from the shore. Spring brought schools of capelin, which were cast up onto beaches by the waves and could be captured in great numbers when the water retreated. In fall, American eels made their way over the muddy beds of the shore water in their long migration to the Sargasso Sea.

The estuary was also home to marine mammals. The early occupants of this region would not have had too much difficulty catching harbour seals and grey seals, which lived in the shallow waters of little bays and reefs. The harp seals that visited the region in spring were also relatively easy to capture. The estuary is still frequented by several species of whales. Prehistoric hunters might have been able to catch belugas, since they are small whales that travel in pods as they search for food.



The higher land of the interior has a rolling landscape with a succession of ridges and valleys, in which countless lakes and rivers lie. The interior forest was home to a great variety of land animals, which would have naturally been hunted by the First Nations people. These animals include large members of the cervidae family, such as moose and woodland caribou (which are no longer present), as well as bear, beaver, porcupine and hare. The lakes and rivers of the interior were full of freshwater fish like brook trout, lake trout and whitefish. It is also likely that the early families took advantage of the many edible plant species that grew in this region.


Like the Gaspé Peninsula, the Lower St. Lawrence region holds a key to our understanding of how humans populated eastern North America. It is thought that one of the oldest sites showing human occupation in Quebec has been found at Squatec, some 100 km inland from Rimouski. The site is believed to date from 10 700 to 10 000 years before the present. The groups that occupied this inland terrace at 170 metres above sea level made tools out of various types of stones coming from regions further to the south, in Maine, even though there was an abundant supply of local stone. The large proportion of exotic stone on the site contrasts with the situation observed on other Paleoindian sites in the Lower St. Lawrence, where local stone was the preferred material. This suggests that the people living at Squatec were still unfamiliar with their surroundings and that the site may be a trace of one of the first incursions into the territory.



In the Late Paleoindian period (9 000 to 8 000 years ago), it seems clear that the groups living in the Lower St. Lawrence region had arrived from the west. These people made camps at Bic, Rimouski and Métis. Archaeologists associate the Late Paleoindian period with the Plano tradition, in which toolmakers fashioned points with parallel retouches. These populations were attracted to the shore area, with its terraces shaped by the Goldthwait Sea; the groups were very mobile and seemed to have impressive knowledge of the region’s geography.


Several of the geological formations in the Lower St. Lawrence region contain the types of stone, such as chert, that was sought by First Nations people to make various tools. Two of their sources for chert have been discovered in the Témiscouata area. These extraction sites, as well as numerous nearby stone flaking camps, show that this stone was a very important raw material for those who lived inland. During the Woodland period (3 000 to 400 years before the present), the Témiscouata area was frequented by Algonquian and Iroquoian groups. By the time the Europeans arrived, the Lower St. Lawrence was part of the Malecites’ ancestral territory.



For those living in the shore area, the islands of the Lower St. Lawrence always represented ideal places for establishing camps. This was especially true in the Late Woodland period (1 000 to 400 years before the present). The St. Lawrence Iroquoians occupied Île aux Corneilles, Île Verte and Île aux Basques on several occasions. These groups came from a generally more sedentary culture, centred in the Quebec City area, and they ventured to the islands of the estuary to hunt marine mammals and make contact with groups further east. Recent research tends to demonstrate that the region around the St. Lawrence estuary represented a zone of contact between the Iroquoians and various Algonquian groups, including the Montagnais and the Malecites.




The Lower St. Lawrence region lies on the south shore of the St. Lawrence estuary. The landscape is characterized by lowlands bordering the river and by the northern limits of the Appalachian plateau, which stretches east to become the Notre-Dame and Chic-Choc mountain ranges. The transition between the Appalachian highlands and the St. Lawrence Lowlands is marked by numerous valleys and a succession of marine terraces lying parallel to the present-day shore.

About 14 500 years ago, the ice sheet covering southern Quebec and the Gaspé Peninsula began to gradually melt as the climate became warmer. The meltwater, collecting in the vast area that had been depressed under the glaciers’ immense weight, formed the Great Lakes and the Goldthwait Sea, which occupied the present-day area of the St. Lawrence estuary and gulf. Some 2 000 years later, the continent had slowly begun to rebound and the Goldthwait Sea receded, leaving terraces along the shores of the St. Lawrence River and a chain of islands between Kamourask and Rimouski. From about 6 000 to 5 000 years ago, the landscape took on its present form in most of the region’s zones.

In the valleys of the Appalachians, summer temperatures are higher and winter temperatures lower than equivalent values along the shore.

Mean temperature for July: 16.3∞ C
Mean temperature for January: -12.5∞ C

Length of average growing season: between 159 and 169 days

Sugar maple-yellow birch stands

Mixed forest with coniferous trees (cedar, spruce and balsam fir), deciduous trees (birch, red oak, sugar maple, beech and aspen) and shrubs (green alder, mountain ash and pin cherry).



Two geologists, L. W. Bailey and W. McInnes, made the first, fortuitous discovery of prehistoric remains in the Lower St. Lawrence region at the end of the 19th century. Present-day knowledge of prehistory in this region is based on work that was carried out as of the 1960s. Charles A. Martijn’s pioneering work laid the foundation for linking sites in the Témiscouata area and those on the islands of the Lower St. Lawrence. In the 1960s and 1970s, this archaeologist’s research made it possible to document previously unknown prehistoric occupations in Quebec. In the 1980s, Pierre Dumais did inventory work in the county of Kamouraska and the Parc national du Bic, leading to the discovery of several prehistoric sites along the shore.

In the mid-1980s, Pierre Desrosiers undertook the task of assessing the state of archaeological sites in the Lower St. Lawrence as part of Quebec’s public land use plan. Following his recommendations, an archaeological research program was directed by Claude Chapdelaine of the anthropology department at the Université de Montreal between 1990 and 1993. Working within this program, Adrian Burke and Éric Chalifoux carried out excavations and inventories on several sites in the interior. The program included a “shore” project, and archaeological work was carried out on several Lower St. Lawrence islands, such as Île aux Basques, where a number of sites were excavated by Roland Tremblay. During the same period, Île aux Basques was focus of an inventory and excavation project realized by a team from CÉLAT (Centre interuniversitaire d’Études sur les Lettres, les Arts et les Traditions) at Université Laval, under the direction of Laurier Turgeon. Between 1989 and 1991, Jean Poirier, Pierre Dumais and Gilles Rousseau of the Ethnoscope company did research in the Témiscouata area that led to the discovery of the Squatec site. In 2004, a new archaeological research program was undertaken in the Dégelis area by Adrian Burke, a professor in the anthropology department at the Université de Montreal.

© Exhibit Center, Université de Montréal 2006. All rights reserved. Questions/comments?