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Ottawa Valley


«By the light of a campfire, a craftsman places a copper nugget on an anvil and strikes it repeatedly with a hammerstone. Little by little, the nugget is flattened until it becomes a thin sheet of metal. The craftsman picks up the sheet, rolls it into a narrow tube and then cuts off several sections that he shapes into hooks and needles.

With the remaining copper, he makes a conical point that will be used for hunting.»


The first occupants of the Ottawa Valley were nomadic people who lived by hunting and fishing during the Archaic period (6 500 to 3 000 years before the present). Around 6 000 years ago, these groups were attracted to the environment created by region’s dense, closed forests, where sugar maple and beech flourished. In the Ottawa Valley, Archaic occupations are best exemplified by the Allumettes Island and Morrison Island sites. Those who once lived on these sites left a variety of flaked and ground tools that bear witness to a remarkable capacity to adapt to the natural environment. Their toolbox included drills, crescent knives, bone harpoons, net sinkers, atlatl weights and projectile points for hunting, ground and polished gouges and axes for working wood, and needles for sewing clothing, in addition to knives and points of ground and polished slate.



As well as exploiting local resources, the people of the Archaic period also seem to have made wide use of exotic materials, which they obtained through the various trade networks that they were part of. For example, their stone tools were quite often flaked out of Onondaga chert, which comes from an area west of Lake Ontario. Some objects were made of chert originating from the Hudson Bay Lowlands or white quartzite from the Lake Mistassini area. Artifacts found near the mouth of the Gatineau River suggest that exchange networks extended as far as the northern tip of Labrador. The Archaic populations living in the Ottawa Valley were also characterized by their use of native copper coming from the Lake Superior area.


Copper craftsmanship distinguished the groups that occupied the Allumettes Island and Morrison Island sites, which are associated with a sub-division of the Archaic period known as the Laurentian Archaic tradition (6 500 to 4 000 years before the present). These sites have revealed a wide array of objects fashioned out of native copper imported from an area west of Lake Superior. These copper objects include punches/awls and needles for working on wood bark or leather, hooks and harpoons for fishing and points for hunting, as well as knives, bracelets, beads and pendants.



The techniques used by Laurentian Archaic people to make these copper objects were not very complicated, but the results show considerable ingenuity. First of all, a copper nugget was cold-hammered with a hammerstone until it was flattened into a thin leaf. The metal sheet could then be rolled into a small tube. Using these thin sheets and tubes, craftsmen fashioned the copper into the desired tools or objects.


The Allumettes Island and Morrison Island sites associated with the Laurentian Archaic tradition (6 500 to 4 000 years before the present) were used for both everyday activities and ritual practices. Over 60 separate burials of men, women and children were discovered on these islands. The bodies, in extended or flexed positions, lay in small shallow graves. Offerings of objects made of stone, bone or copper had sometimes been placed with the deceased to accompany them in the “world of the dead.”



In the Ottawa Valley, as elsewhere in Quebec generally, the first evidence of funerary rites dates to the Archaic period. Both the burial of the dead and the grave offerings show that people in the Archaic period had a shared spiritual awareness. The earliest burials found on the Allumettes Island site have been dated to 5 300 years before the present.


The beginning of the Woodland period (3 000 to 400 years before the present) was marked by the appearance of the first baked clay vessels. Woodland populations gradually developed new hunting weapons and new techniques for cooking food. The Woodland period is divided into three sub-periods.


The introduction of pottery and the use of Onondaga chert (coming from the Great Lakes) characterize the Early Woodland period (3 000 to 2 400 years before the present). The Middle Woodland period (2 400 to 1 000 years before the present) is distinguished by increasingly decorative pottery and ever smaller projectile points, indicating that the bow and arrow had been introduced. In the Late Woodland period (1 000 to 400 years before the present), groups developed a mixed economy in which the products of hunting and fishing were preserved by smoking and the surpluses obtained from gathering and horticulture were kept in storage. Pottery was made by women, and the knowledge and techniques required to make and decorate the increasingly elaborate vessels was passed down from mother to daughter. Various Late Woodlands Algonquian bands still lived in the Ottawa Valley when Champlain visited the region in the 17th century.


A rock art site known as Bird Rock (Rocher à l’Oiseau) stands on the banks of the Ottawa River. The paintings depict a winged figure representing a bird, the arc of a circle, people in a canoe and an archer. According to some interpretations, the bird motif might be a reference to a legend in Algonquian mythology, according to which a baby that fell from the cliff was saved from certain death by an eagle.



Rock art sheds light on the way First Nations people represented their universe and belief system. Rock paintings of human and animal figures can be found on cliffs throughout the Canadian Shield on numerous sites associated with the Algonquian tradition. Such sites have been identified in Northern Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The handful of rock art sites found in Quebec, including the paintings done by the Ottawa Valley Algonquians, are thus part of a much broader cultural phenomenon, which represented the universe in mythical terms.



Canadian Shield and St. Lawrence Lowlands

The Ottawa Valley belongs geologically to the Grenville Province and the St. Lawrence Lowlands. The region is partially covered by glacial, fluvio-glacial and marine deposits, associated with the last ice age, known as the Wisconsin Period. About 20 000 ago, the entire region lay under the Laurentide Inlandsis, an immense ice sheet measuring over two kilometres in depth.

As the glacier moved, it produced numerous traces of erosion and left deposits in the basins and valleys of the Laurentian Plateau. Under the weight of the ice, the continent sank several metres and, when the glacier began to melt, this territory was below sea level. As a result of these conditions, an arm of the Atlantic Ocean penetrated the continent as far as the Ottawa Valley, producing a body of water known as the Champlain Sea. Between 12 000 and 9 500 years ago, the region was covered by this sea, which reached a depth of about 200 metres. The water eventually retreated but it was only in the seventh millennium that the newly emerged lowlands of the Ottawa Valley had an environment that was conducive to colonization by plants, animals and humans.


Mean temperature in July: 18.3∞ C at Maniwaki
Mean temperature in January: -13.5∞ C at Maniwaki

Length of average growing season: 170 to 190 days

Deciduous and mixed forest

Sugar maple-hickory stands (with silver maple, American elm, ash, oak, white pine and red pine) in low-lying land.

Laurentian maple stands, sugar maple-yellow birch stands and balsam fir forests in the hills of the Laurentian Plateau. To the south, these forests include silver maple, red maple, American elm, slippery elm, American black ash, beech, red oak and butternut. To the north, conifers such as balsam fir, spruce and jack pine become increasingly dominant.



The first archaeological discoveries in the Ottawa Valley were made in the 19th century by Dr. Edward Van Courtland, who reported the presence of graves with offerings. At the end of the 19th century, work done for the expansion of Ottawa and Hull led to several chance finds, which were documented by David Boyle of the Ontario Provincial Museum. Between 1895 and 1915, T. W. Edwin Sowter, a civil servant with the Topographical Surveys branch of the Department of the Interior and an archaeology and palaeontology enthusiast, produced many publications that shed light on the archaeological wealth of the Ottawa Valley. The archaeologist William J. Wintemberg, a contemporary of T. W. Edwin Sowter, established a solid basis for subsequent research on the region’s prehistory. Wintemberg continued to be active in this field until his sudden death in 1941.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Clyde C. Kennedy undertook excavations on the Allumettes Island and Morrison Island sites. In the 1960s, Barry Mitchell carried out digs on several Archaic and Woodland sites. In the 1970s, Roger Marois, an archaeologist working at the National Museum of Man, did research in the Baskatong area. The Ottawa Chapter of the Ontario Archaeological Society was established in 1971 and this gave a boost to archaeological research in the region. The Ottawa Historical Society was founded in 1993 and contributed significantly to the promotion of the research carried out in Lake Leamy Park until 2002. A field school in Lake Leamy Park was directed by archaeologist Marcel Laliberté, in collaboration with the Université du Quebec à Montreal, the National Capital Commission, the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Kitigan Zibi band. The most recent research in the region was undertaken by Jean-Luc Pilon of the Canadian Museum of Civilization on sites dating from the Archaic period (6 500 to 3 000 years before the present).

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