«Under a starry winter sky, hunters
sleep, lulled by the sound of spouting whales just off the
headland and dreaming of what they will catch during their
They hope that the great river will be in a mood to help
them reach the drifting ice floes where the seals give birth
to their pups in the late winter months.»
The mouth of the Saguenay River marks a gateway to the North American
continent. The region saw one of the first posts in New France and
today is recognized as an exceptional place for observing and studying
marine mammals. In this area of the St. Lawrence, salt and sweet
water mingle, and there are strong upswellings full of nourishing
organisms that attract several species of whales and dolphins.
Archaeological research conducted on certain sites (Ouellet, Pointe-à-Crapaud
and Cap-de-Bon-Désir) indicate that the groups that made seasonal
camps there engaged almost exclusively in seal hunting. Elsewhere,
on more recent sites, there is evidence that Iroquoian groups from
the Quebec City area visited the North Shore.
Archaeological remains show that these groups hunted three species
of seals: harp seals, which frequent the St. Lawrence Estuary in
winter and early spring, and gray seals and harbor seals, both of
which are found there the rest of the year. This means that the hunters
were active both in winter and summer.
BACK FROM SEAL
On other sites (Lavoie and La Falaise), the remains of beaver and
several bird species, as well as seal, indicate that hunting was
more diversified at these spots. The archaeological evidence uncovered
is characteristic of nomadic groups who have adapted to living in
the north. These sites were occupied by Algonquian-speakers who were
probably the ancestors of the Montagnais now living in communities
along the North Shore.
8 000 YEARS OF SEAL HUNTING
The earliest evidence of seal hunting has been found on a site at
Cap-de-Bon-Désir, which stands 36 m above sea level. This
plateau-like headland emerged from the Goldthwait Sea between 8 500
and 9 000 years ago. Even at that time, the mouth of the Saguenay
was free of ice in winter and, just as it does today, offered particularly
good conditions for marine animals.
Excavations at this site have revealed part of an encampment with
tiny pits, the bones of a single seal and stone tools. A sample of
wood charcoal from one of the pits was radiocarbon-dated and the
mean age obtained was 8113 years.
At about the same time, groups of another people (the Plano) came
from the Great Lakes area and, travelling along the St. Lawrence
Valley, reached the Lower St. Lawrence and the Gaspé Peninsula.
EVIDENCE OF SEASONAL HUNTING
Harp seals frequent the St. Lawrence Estuary in winter, when their
breeding period occurs. Since the pups are born on ice floes and
the adults are less mobile out of water, this is a time when harp
seals become relatively easy prey. Early hunters would have used
harpoons or clubs to kill them.
The presence of harp seal bones on an archaeological site is thus
a fairly reliable indicator of the season in which the site occupied.
Bone analyses reveal that seal carcasses were brought back whole
to the encampment and then cut up there.
The Canadian Shield dates from the Precambrian Era, about 4 billion
years ago. It was formed when ancient mountain chains were eroded
by great glaciers into the plateaus, hills and low mountains to be
Boreal forest (coniferous trees)
Mean annual temperature between 0.8 and 2.7°C
Warm summers, mean temperature for the three warmest months between
13.6°C and 17.7°C
Cold winters, mean temperature for the three coldest months between –13.6°C
Length of average growing season between 163 and 182 days
At the beginning of the 20th century, the vast sand cliffs at Tadoussac
caught the attention of those who would lay the groundwork for North
Shore archaeology. The American ethnologist Frank J. G. Speck, passing
through Tadoussac in 1917 on his way to study the Montagnais’ way
of life, collected flaked stone tools from the surface of terraces
exposed by timber felling. An Ontarian archaeologist, John William
Wintemberg, studied these artifacts in the mid-20th century and associated
them with occupations dating to 7000 years before the present. Around
the 1950s, Louis (Ti-Louis) Gagnon, an unconventional, enlightened
amateur from Grandes-Bergeronnes, alerted professional archaeologists
to the wealth of artifacts to be found along the shore. In the 1970s,
Serge-André Crête and Charles A. Martijn undertook the
first systematic scientific field work in the region.
Excavations conducted on significant archaeological sites in the
Grandes-Bergeronnes area since 1980 have made it possible to reconstruct
several occupations that occurred between 8 000 years ago and the
Contact period. The field school of the Université de Québec à Montréal
was run here for 10 years by archaeologists Tassé, Lebel,
Plumet and Moreau. Since 1995, Michel Plourde has been continuing
the work of his predecessors, focussing on the presence of Amerindians
at the confluence of the Saguenay and the St. Lawrence before and
during the Contact period and, in particular, on the way these people
made use of their marine environment. The results of this research
program, which has been conducted with the collaboration of the Centre
Archéo Topo and the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, has
been summed up in a publication.
Center, Université de Montréal 2006. All rights reserved. Questions/comments?