«In a race against the autumn frost,
villagers make haste to harvest corn, beans and squash. These
cultivated plants will be used for food and traded with the
Algonquian groups living further north.
While the women, children and old men are busy gathering
crops in the fields and storing them for the winter, the
men take advantage of nature’s cornucopia by catching
fish and hunting game.»
IROQUOIANS IN JACQUE CARTIER'S ACCOUNTS
In Jacques Cartier's accounts of his explorations, he says that
he met Iroquoians at the northeast tip of Île d'Orléans
and that he went ashore on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River,
probably on the coastal plain at the foot of Cap-Tourmente, in order
to trade goods with the territory’s first inhabitants.
In his description of the region around Stadacona, where Quebec
City now stands, Cartier mentions that on the approach to this settlement
from downstream, there were four communities in four villages: Ajoaste,
Starnatan, Tailla, which is at the foot of a mountain, and Sitadin
("y a quatre peuples et demourances, savoyr: Ajoaste, Starnatan,
Tailla, qui est sus vne montaigne, et Sitadin."). Cartier also
says in May of 1536, when he made his hasty departure, he left one
of his vessels with the people of Sitadin, which must have stood
near where the Europeans had spent the winter, at the mouth of the
But the location of the other Iroquoian villages along the shore
between Cap-Tourmente and Quebec City remains a tantalizing puzzle.
Archaeologists have explored this area in the hopes of finding evidence
of occupation that might help to identify one of the places mentioned
in Cartier's accounts of his travels.
THE FURTHEST LIMITS OF AGRICULTURE
Archaeologists knew that exploration of the region between Cap-Tourmente
and Quebec City would be very informative because this area marks
the furthest extent of the St. Lawrence Lowlands, and thus the furthest
limits of agriculture, along the north shore of the river. Researchers
wanted to know whether the villagers in this region shared the corn-based
diet and lifestyle of the other Iroquoians occupying the St. Lawrence
FROM SEED TO HARVEST
The region's harsh climate has often been cited as arguing against
the likelihood of there being farming villages here. Situated at
the extreme limits of the zone in which agriculture can be practised,
the region has an annual growing season and number of consecutive
frost-free days that compare with conditions further south. It was
here that the French first settled at the beginning of the colony,
and this lends support to the hypothesis that Iroquoians were farming
the area in the 16th century.
It should also be mentioned that this northern portion of Iroquoian
territory may have enjoyed a microclimate that was favorable for
agriculture, even as it seems to today. The flat topography described
by Jacques Cartier appears to have changed very little; the region
thus offered an accessible and hospitable place to live.
THE FIRST VILLAGE EAST OF STADACONA
Archaeologists' search for the first village east of Stadacona was
guided by clues in the landscape. It was known that the Iroquoians
established villages near their corn fields and preferred sandy soil
for farming. As well, their villages were often at some distance
from the St. Lawrence, on well-drained terraces. The Cap-Tourmente
sector, showing these characteristics, appeared especially promising.
RETURN OF A HUNTING
These clues had previously led to the discovery of Iroquoian villages
at Deschambault, to the west of Quebec City, in the early 1980s.
This discovery made it clear that Iroquoians in the Quebec City region
were affected by the other St. Lawrence Iroquoians' wide sphere of
influence. The existence of these villages made it more likely that
others might be found further to the northeast in the Iroquoians'
Archaeological work in the Cap-Tourmente sector revealed several
Iroquoian sites, which were probably fishing or stop-over camps.
Then an Iroquoian village was discovered. This village - the first
to be found east of Quebec City - has been named “Royarnois” in
honour of the current owners of the site.
This discovery may be said to confirm the veracity of Jacques Cartier's
accounts, which mention the existence of four villages downstream
from Stadacona. The Royarnois site is located at Cap-Tourmente, on
a terrace about seven metres above sea-level. Excavations on this
site have revealed the walls of at least four longhouses. These houses
do not all date from the same time, since some of them lie above
Excavations also revealed hearths, postholes, pits and over 2 000
artifacts. The village is the most important of the sites identified
as dating to the Late Woodland period (1 000 to 400 years before
the present) at Cap-Tourmente. The site yielded the largest collection
of prehistoric pottery ever found in the region.
The village potters (all women at that time) decorated their clay
vessels with complex motifs similar to those generally found on ceramics
from 16th-century sites in the St. Lawrence Valley. It follows that
the Cap-Tourmente village must have existed in this period and its
inhabitants may well have been in contact with Jacques Cartier. It
may even be that the Royarnois site corresponds to an area of the
village of Ajoaste mentioned by Cartier. This is an interesting idea,
but there is no means of testing its likelihood.
A PERIOD OF GREAT CHANGE
For the time being, the Royarnois site is considered to have been
an isolated village that was occupied several times. It belonged
to a concentration of small seasonal sites that were used intermittently.
On the basis of the decorated pottery found on the site, archaeologists
believe that the village began to be occupied 700 years ago or even
earlier. This first occupation corresponds to the time when the Iroquoians
were just starting to farm. The construction of longhouses dating
from this period at Cap-Tourmente is evidence that the Iroquoians
in the Quebec City region were involved in the great economic changes
affecting the Iroquoian groups as a whole.
A DIVERSIFIED MENU
The inhabitants of Royarnois seem to have had a varied diet. Bones
found on the site have been identified as coming from white-tailed
deer, moose, caribou, beaver, members of the dog family and various
fish and birds, as well as seal and beluga whales.
Many factors make it likely that the Eastern Iroquoians, and especially
the Iroquoians in the Quebec City area, began to eat corn very early,
even in the 11th or 12th century, although they continued to hunt
marine mammals and other animals as an efficient and profitable means
of sustenance. They appear to have never experienced the agricultural
revolution that dramatically affected the rest of the Iroquoians
1 000 to 700 years ago and led them to adopt a settled lifestyle
in villages. The Eastern Iroquoians seem to have remained mobile
despite the fact that they practised horticulture on sandy ground
in the region. At the time of Cartier's explorations, the people
of Stadacona travelled in the St. Lawrence Estuary as far as Tadoussac
and Gaspé Bay.
These people, who farmed, fished and, above all, hunted marine animals,
must have enjoyed feasts with far more diverse menus than did other
communities in the Iroquoian universe.
Canadian Shield, St. Lawrence Lowlands.
The archaeological sites described here are located in lowlands.
The St. Lawrence Lowlands represent a fault trough bordered by the
Logan Fault to the south and a fault zone to the north. The Lowlands
lie on the Precambrian rock of the Canadian Shield and were formed
by sediments from the Shield and the Appalachians 65 million years
The area sank under the weight of glaciers 12 500 years ago and
was flooded by the Champlain Sea when the climate warmed up. When
this sea receded, it left a layer of clay over the sedimentary and
Mixed forest (coniferous and deciduous trees)
Maple-yellow birch stands
Mean annual temperature between 2.7 and 4.7°C
Warm summers, mean temperature for the three warmest months between
15.7°C and 17.7°C
Cold winters, mean temperature for the three coldest months between –11.6°C
Length of average growing season between 182 and 201 days.
The Quebec City region attracted the attention of archaeologists
wishing to verify the accuracy of Jacques Cartier’s geopolitical
descriptions. Until 1989, there was a lack of systematic excavation
and analysis of the area’s Iroquoian sites, with the exception
of the Place Royale site, in the city’s centre. Starting at
this time, a team of archaeologists directed by Claude Chapdelaine
from the Université de Montréal undertook a program
that led to the discovery of over 20 sites in the sector between
the Côte de Beaupré and Cap-Tourmente. Excavations carried
out by Jacques Guimont of Parks Canada on the Petite Ferme site at
Cap-Tourmente also brought to light the remains of Amerindian occupations.
Center, Université de Montréal 2006. All rights reserved. Questions/comments?