«Returning from a long trip from Hudson
Bay to the Lake Saint-Jean area, nomadic families set up camp
along the banks of the Ashuapmushuan River, erecting huts made
of poles and birch bark.
A dog walks beside its master, who carries a canoe to
the camp. A moose hide dries on a stretcher while meat is
grilled on a spit suspended above the fire. Stews are also
made in birch bark containers with meat and water to which
red-hot stones are added.»
AT THE CROSSROADS OF A VAST NETWORK
The Saguenay-Lake-Saint-Jean river system extends over an area measuring
about 350 km from east to west and some 500 km from north to south.
Most of the waterways that flow through this system constitute natural
passages to the surrounding river systems. Since the rivers in the
Saguenay-Lake-Saint-Jean system converge towards Lake Saint-Jean,
this body of water is like a crossroads in the heart of a vast communication
network of rivers.
It is clear that this extensive drainage basin played an important
role as a strategic area for contact and trade between prehistoric
populations. From Lake Saint-Jean it is possible to take waterways
leading south to the St. Lawrence River, west to the Great Lakes,
northwest to James Bay and north to Ungava Bay. The Saguenay-Lake-Saint-Jean
river system represented a major trade route for populations living
in the St. Lawrence estuary and the Great Lakes region.
PLACES TO MEET AND TRADE
First Nations people have occupied the Saguenay-Lake-Saint-Jean
area from the Archaic period (6 500 to 3 000 years before the present).
Throughout the prehistoric period, there were numerous places in
this area where various cultural groups came to meet each other and
exchange goods. The people dwelling here lived in family groups on
terraces along the Saguenay River and around Lake Saint-Jean.
During the Late Woodland period (1 000 to 400 years before the present),
the Saguenay-Lake-Saint-Jean river system began to be more densely
occupied. Two quite different Aboriginal groups lived in this region
up to the 14th century. From Tadoussac to Chicoutimi, groups associated
with the St. Lawrence Valley, such as Iroquoians, occupied the banks
of the Saguenay River, while upstream from Chicoutimi and around
Lake Saint-Jean, the territory belonged to Algonquians, the ancestors
of the present-day Ilnus.
PEOPLE OF THE SEA - PEOPLE OF THE LAND
Throughout prehistory, the lifeways of the First Nations people
evolved and adapted to various environments. In the Saguenay-Lake-Saint-Jean
area, groups around the lake lived very differently from groups dwelling
along the river. The economy of those living around Lake Saint-Jean
was based on terrestrial resources, while the lifestyle of groups
along the Saguenay River was more closely linked to maritime resources.
The banks of the Saguenay River are so steep in many places that
human occupation is impossible. However, at the mouth of one of its
tributaries, the Sainte-Marguerite River, there are tiered terraces
offering ideal sites for camps. The highest of these terraces were
occupied by First Nations people who hunted seals and beluga whales.
These groups, coming from the St. Lawrence estuary rather than from
inland regions, occupied the area from the Archaic Period (6 500
to 3 000 years before the present) right up to the Contact period.
A KINGDOM OF FUR
After the Contact period, the First Nations people in this area
became active in the fur trade, and the basis of their economy was
greatly modified. Hunting intensified to the point that animal populations
were exhausted, while at the same time the Ilnus of the Saguenay
region became increasingly dependent for their survival on European
goods, distributed through the posts and missions that were established
in the region. Posts built on the Chicoutimi, Ashuapmushuan and Metabetchouan
(1676-1880) rivers testify to the growth of the fur trade in the
area in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Archaeological work at these sites has revealed many traces of the
establishments made by the First Nations and Eurocanadians. Found
at several levels of occupation, such vestiges have made it possible
to define the main stages and circumstances marking the use of these
sites during a period of almost 2000 years. In the historic period,
the trading posts were places where Aboriginals traded beaver, moose
and martin pelts in exchange for European beads, pipes, copper wares,
flour and tea.
The geological basement of the Saguenay-Lake-Saint-Jean region belongs
to the Grenville Province of the Canadian Shield. The main geographical
features of this region are the Lake Saint-Jean Lowlands, the Upper
Saguenay, the highlands and encased valleys of the Saguenay Fjord
and the Sainte-Marguerite and Saint-Jean rivers.
The present-day landscape of the Saguenay-Lake-Saint-Jean region
was shaped in great part by the last ice age. When the ice sheet
began to melt, the territory was flooded by an arm of the Champlain
Sea. This body of water, known as the Laflamme Sea, reached a depth
of 180 metres towards the north. The Lake Saint-Jean Lowlands were
formed as the continent, now freed of the glaciers’ weight,
rebounded and the sea withdrew, leaving terraces, peat bogs and dunes
in its wake. These lowlands generally range between 100 and 150 metres
in altitude, although they attain 200 metres in places. Directly
surrounding the lake and the Saguenay River, the highlands of the
Canadian Shield rise to an altitude of over 180 metres.
Highlands: boreal forest (black spruce, white spruce, balsam fir
and jack pine)
Lowlands: Laurentian forest (yellow birch, eastern white pine, red
pine, black ash and trembling aspen)
Humid continental climate
Mean temperature in July: 18∞ C
Mean temperatures in January: from –15∞ C to –17∞ C
Length of average annual growing season: between 100 and 110 days
The first archaeological work in the region was undertaken by the
notary J.-H. Fortin between 1966 and 1968. At about the same time,
Father Simard began excavations of the Chicoutimi trading post (1968
to 1972) and the Metabetchouan River site (1967).
During the 1970s and 1980s, great advances were made in our understanding
of how the Saguenay-Lake-Saint-Jean region was occupied by humans
in the past. These advances were the result of work by J.-F Blanchette,
R. Lueger, C. Lapointe and C. Chapdelaine in the Chicoutimi area;
M. Laliberté and M. Guitard at the mouth of the Metabetchouan
River; and M. Laliberté, Y. Labrèche and C. Larouche
on the Ashuapmushuan River. The growing number of researchers working
in the region since the early 1970s has heightened the visibility
of its archaeological resources and encouraged the documentation
of its prehistoric occupations. The local population has become more
aware of their region’s human past, and the area has benefited
from close co-operation among government and museum representatives,
the collaboration of local Amerindian groups, the work of private
companies and the involvement of the Université du Quebec à Chicoutimi
and its archaeologists (J.-F Moreau and É. Langevin). The
development of regional archaeology has also been spurred by private
archaeological companies (Archéotec, Arkéos and Subarctique)
and consultants, who have made essential contributions to a better
understanding of the region’s human past.
Center, Université de Montréal 2006. All rights reserved. Questions/comments?