Prehistoric Québec

The first humans venture into a land newly freed of ice

About 150 000 years ago, all of Québec was covered to a depth of over a kilometre by an immense glacier, known as the Laurentide Ice Sheet. Some 500 years later, as the climate became milder, the ice began to gradually retreat. Over the next several thousand years, the galcier melted, starting in southern Québec and the Gaspé peninsula. The water from the melting ice formed huge bodies of water, some of which were salty. The Goldthwait Sea covered the St. Lawrence Estuary, the Champlain Sea lay over the St. Lawrence Lowlands and the Tyrrell Sea stretched eastwards from James Bay and Hudson Bay, while the Iberville Sea extended around Ungava Bay.

Liberated from the weight of the glaciers, the land began to slowly rise and emerge from the water. Plants started to grow in this new land and animals found their way to it. It was then, about 12 000 years ago, that the first nomadic human groups, coming from the west and southeast, entered the territory.

Their ancestors are thought to have travelled from Asia to North America about 14 000 years ago, crossing the broad land bridge that once linked the two continents before being submerged by the waters of Bering Strait. These hunters wandered through the Alaska and Yukon areas, recently freed from glaciers, for about 1 000 years, until a corridor exposed by the retreating ice allowed them to venture further eastward.

The Paleo-Indian Period: who were the first inhabitants of Québec?

Archaeologists give the name Paleo-Indian to the groups of Amerindian hunters who entered the St. Lawrence Valley as the Champlain Sea began to shrink. The climate was harsh and the landscape was similar to that of the North today – a treeless expanse of tundra. These people gradually explored the territory of Québec as they followed caribou herds into regions newly drained of seawater and now colonized by plants. They probably lived in small, very mobile communities that travelled over considerable distances. They made stone tools, characterized in particular by fluted projectile points known as Clovis points. In 2003, several fragments of this kind of hunting weapon were discovered on the Cliché-Rancourt site, an archaeological site near Lake Megantic in the Eastern Townships. It is the only Québec site so far to reveal the existence of human occupation as far back as 12 000 years ago, in the period called Early Paleo-Indian.

The Late Paleo-Indian Period, which covers about 2 000 years, from 10 000 to 8 000 years before the present, is fairly well represented in Québec, since it is documented on some 50 sites. Fine examples of the famous Plano projectile point, with its characteristic flat retouching, have been discovered on several sites dating from this period: Rimouski, in the Lower St. Lawrence; La Martre and Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, on the north shore of the Gaspé peninsula; near the Chaudière River on the south shore of Québec; and Thompson Island, near Cornwall. The Late Paleo-Indians used various kinds of stone to produce these points, as well as knives, axes, awls and scrapers for preparing hides.

The Archaic Period: a long era marked by change

The period following the Paleo-Indian Period is known as the Archaic and lasted a very long time, covering about six millennia, from 9 000 to 3 000 years before the present. Archaeologists divide this period into three phases: Early, Middle and Late Archaic.  This period began when the Amerindian population grew larger and had to adapt to ever-changing climatic conditions. The southern part of Québec had become completely free of ice and the landscape was very much as it is now. The people of the Archaic Period advanced northward into new regions as the ice sheet retreated. The glacier eventually disappeared completely 6 000 years ago and, three millennia later, the entire area of present-day Québec was roamed by these nomadic people. So far, over 800 Archaic sites have been recorded – eloquent evidence of their widespread presence.

The Amerindians of the Archaic Period used all the available animal and plant resources provided by each season They had a nomadic lifestyle based on the hunting, fishing and gathering. Their stone tools became more diversified, and they developed new tool-making techniques, such as pecking and grinding, in addition to flaking. They also hammered native copper into various objects. The wide range of raw materials coming from distant regions like Labrador, Lake Superior and Pennsylvania gives an idea of the extent of their trade and communications network.

Only a tiny fraction of the rich material culture of these nomadic people has survived to this day, since any object made of perishable material would have disintegrated in the course of the millennia. There is only indirect evidence of materials like animal skin, wood, bark, plant fibres, bone and shell that would have been used to make tools, weapons, utensils, clothing, vessels, shelter, game pieces, nets, boats, ornaments and many other things.

The Archaic Amerindians mainly hunted large animals in the deer family (Cervidae), but they also consumed other mammals and fish. On the North Shore and on the Gaspé coast, marine mammals were the main resource.

The Archaic Period is distinguished by the development of diverse material cultures associated with specific environments. Archaeologists identify three Archaic material culture traditions in Québec: Laurentian Archaic, in the St. Lawrence Valley; Shield Archaic, covering the vast northern region; and Maritime Archaic, found on the Lower North Shore.

The Woodland Period: an era of abundance

3 000 years ago, there began a period of dynamic cultural change among Amerindian populations, which were undergoing unprecedented demographic growth. This development is reflected in the number of archaeological sites dating from this period – over 1 000, found in every region of Québec! It was in this period that groups of hunter-gatherers belonging to a common language family came from the Great Lakes area to occupy part of the St. Lawrence Valley. These people gradually adopted new practices, introduced from regions to the south, such as making pottery and growing corn. Their diet changed, as gathering fruit, plants and grains took on a more important role, alongside hunting and fishing. Archaeologists refer to this period as the Woodland Period and, as they do for the Archaic Period, divide it into three phases: Early, Middle and Late.

Changes on the horizon

During the first phase, the Early Woodland Period, 3 000 years before the present, lifestyles were not very different from what they had been in the previous periods. For example, the use of pottery had only recently been adopted and was not very widespread. As in the Archaic Period, the materials used for tool making sometimes came from far away – quartzite was imported from Mistassini, Ramah chert from Nouveau Québec, jasper from Pennsylvania and copper from Lake Superior. This shows that the Amerindians in this period continued to have a vast network of trade and contacts with other populations. However, it seems that these groups were somewhat less mobile: they visited the same sites more regularly and occupied them more intensively. The period is distinguished particularly by what archaeologists call the Meadowood episode, a cultural tradition marked by an abundant production of stone tools. Another characteristic of this episode is a new burial practice: the dead were cremated in pits and buried with magnificent grave goods like bird-shaped stones, polished slate breastplates, native copper beads and cache hand-axes made of Onondaga chert, a material coming from the Niagara Peninsula, north of Lake Erie.

More pottery and less movement

While the Early Woodland sites recorded so far in Québec number less than 100, there are over 300 sites dating from the following Middle Woodland phase, which began 2 400 years ago. As well, more Middle Woodland sites are found further north than is the case for the preceding phase. This situation is no doubt mainly a reflection of the population’s demographic growth and increasing competition for resources. In general, the mobility of Middle Woodland populations seemed to gradually diminish, to the point that certain sites probably represent places where groups gathered and stayed for extended periods in spring and fall. These Amerindians’ diet included a much wider variety of species than before. They also used more aquatic resources: they collected molluscs and caught species of fish that had been ignored until then. On the Point-du-Buisson site, archaeologists have been able to identify 24 species of fish, whose bone remains constitute 83% of the entire faunal collection. Furthermore, the use of clay vessels became more common. Pottery was decorated with distinctive styles that varied according to time and place. The frequent presence of a charred layer on the inner walls of pottery sherds is an intriguing clue – the vessels seem to have been used above all for cooking rather than for storage.

As in the preceding phase, the wide range of materials used to make stone tools reflects the existence of an immense trade network stretching from the Niagara Peninsula to Labrador and including Pennsylvania, Maine and Vermont.

The corn-growing people

The Late Woodland Period began about the year 1000 of our era.  By then, through a very long process, certain hunting and fishing populations of the previous phase had begun to live in more sedentary societies based on the cultivation of corn, squash, beans, sunflowers and tobacco. These people were the St. Lawrence Iroquoians. They lived in longhouses built in large villages encircled by palisades and containing populations that might number more than 2 000.

At the beginning of the 16th century, Jacques Cartier travelled up the St. Lawrence and found such Iroquoian farming villages when he visited Hochelaga (Montréal) and Stadacona (Québec). However, by the time of Champlain’s arrival in 1603, the St. Lawrence Iroquoians had disappeared. What was the cause of this disappearance? Was it famine, an epidemic or warfare? Archaeology has not yet discovered the answer. Following this disappearance, other Amerindian groups like the Mi’gmaqs, Malecites, Algonquins and, especially, the Montagnais occupied the shores of the St. Lawrence. The Canadian Shield continued to be home to other Algonquian populations who had a nomadic lifestyle based on hunting and fishing and whose territories covered a vast area, sometimes bringing them into contact with the ancestors of the Inuit in certain regions.

Algonquians, Iroquoians and Inuit

The Amerindians of Québec belong to one of two linguistic and cultural families – the Algonquian family and the Iroquoian family.

  • The Abenakis, Alogonquins, Attikameks, Crees, Innus, Malecites, Mi’gmaqs and Naskapis are part of the Algonquian family.
  • The Huron-Wendats and the Mohawks are part of the Iroquoian family.

The Inuit, whose ancestors arrived in a later wave of migration, form a distinct ethnic group, belonging to a single family, the Eskimo-Aleut family.

  • The Inuit represent the Eskimo-Aleut family.

Chronology of Amerindian peopling up to the Historic period 


(Years before the present)


 Around 12 000

Amerindians coming from the south and west enter present-day Québec. Called Paleo-Indians, they specialize in caribou hunting. They occupy the regions of the Eastern Townships, Rimouski and the Gaspé Peninsula.

Around 6 000

The Amerindian occupation intensifies. These nomadic populations live by hunting, fishing and gathering. The use of a wide variety of natural resources is reflected in an increased number of tools made of flaked or ground stone. This period is referred to as the Archaic.

Around 3 500

The population grows and lifestyles change, particularly in the St. Lawrence Valley. The introduction of pottery and farming, adopted from societies living to the south characterizes this period, known as the Woodland.

Around 1000

The Iroquoian populations of southern Québec adopt a more sedentary lifestyle, farming and living in longhouses in villages with populations of up to 2 000 or more. These people are the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, whom Jacques Cartier encounters along the shores of the St. Lawrence River in 1534. Algonquian groups, on the other hand, continue to live off the fruits of the land, by fishing, hunting and gathering.

16th century

The St. Lawrence Iroquoians are at war with the Algonquians and the Hurons. By 1608, they have disappeared from the St. Lawrence Valley. Their disappearance is a topic of heated debate among archaeologists and historians.

Who were the Inuit’s ancestors?

Paleo-Eskimos adapt to a harsh, changing environment

Nearly 4 000 years ago, before the arrival of the present-day Inuit, groups of nomadic hunters who had earlier migrated from Siberia to Alaska began to move eastward, eventually reaching the eastern Arctic, where they explored the Hudson Bay area and the coast of Labrador. Archaeologists call these people Paleo-Eskimos, dividing them into two phases: the Pre-Dorsets and the Dorsets. The Paleo-Eskimos hunted caribou and marine mammals. Numerous remains of their encampments have been discovered. These sites reveal evidence of habitations, as well as tools and weapons made of stone, bone and ivory. Dorset sites have been found as far away as Newfoundland and on the Lower North Shore.

The Thule, ancestors of today’s Inuit

Around the year 1000, a second wave of migration occurred. Groups with roots in Asia and belonging to a culture based on hunting large mammals travelled to the eastern Arctic and occupied the regions previously used by the Paleo-Eskimos. These people, known as the Thule, had developed techniques and equipment that were extremely well adapted to living in a maritime environment – boats, sleds, bows and arrows, spears, javelins and harpoons.

Today’s Inuit, who descended from the Thule people, now occupy the shores of Arctic Québec and Labrador. Their oral tradition, recorded by explorers, missionaries and traders since the 17th century, complements the archaeological information that has been gathered about an incredible human adaptation to the Arctic environment.

 Chronology of Inuit Peopling


(Years before the present)


Around 4 000

Populations in the western Arctic continued their eastward migration. These people are known as Paleo-Eskimos. They lived in the Québec Arctic for about 1 500 years, surviving by hunting marine and land mammals. According to archaeological research, the occupation of lands in northern Québec by the Paleo-Eskimos became definitive about 2 500 years ago

Around 1000

Around 1 000 years ago, there was another migration from the western Arctic, this time on the part of Neo-Eskimos, or Thule. They crossed the Canadian Arctic comparatively quickly and seem to have displaced the Paleo-Eskimos, who disappeared completely from their former territories. The Neo-Eskimos were the ancestors of most of today’s Inuit.