Humans and the land

The Peopling of Quebec : A rich and varied history

In the following pages, you’ll discover how archaeology has helped to reveal the rich and varied story of Québec’s peopling, which has been shaped by successive migrations and diverse cultural traditions.

Although there is often a tendency to start Québec’s history with the arrival of Jacques Cartier in 1534, archaeology shows that in reality the earliest human occupation of this land dates back over 10 000 years! It was then that the first groups of nomadic hunters arrived. They were the descendents of people who had gradually travelled from distant Siberia, crossing from Asia to North America over a land bridge that lay where the Bering Straight is now, following herds of migrating animals. This population entered what is now Québec when the land was newly liberated from glaciers and had just begun to be colonized by plants and animals.

6 000 years after these populations’ first appearance, their trade networks were already well established. There is archaeological evidence of their occupation of the land around the Gulf of St. Lawrence and in the Great Lakes region. Around the year 1000 of our era, or perhaps before, links began to be developed with what is now the State of New York. At about the same time, Vikings, or Norsemen, were exploring the Atlantic coastline. No trace of their presence has been discovered so far in Québec.

Towards the end of the 15th century, Portuguese, French and Spanish explorers ventured to North America. In the 16th century, European fishing vessels, particularly those of the Basques, crossed the Atlantic to catch the whales and cod that abounded in the waters of the New World.

At the beginning of the 17th century, the first European settlements were slowly established. Colonization efforts were hindered not only by numerous conflicts but also by the difficulties faced by the newcomers in adapting to this vast land and its severe climate. In the French colony known as New France, the principal economic activity was the fur trade, which encouraged the exploration of more distant regions.

The dawn of the 18th century was marked by a triumph of diplomacy in 1701, when the Great Peace was negotiated by the French and signed in Montréal by some forty Amerindian groups from as far away as the Great Lakes, thus ending almost 100 years of warfare. This century was also marked by conflicts between European kingdoms, with serious repercussions for New France and its survival. Despite many attempts to consolidate the territory it had acquired, New France fell to British forces in 1760.

In the following century, despite sporadic uprisings that threatened the political stability of Lower Canada, there was greatly increased settlement on either side of the St. Lawrence River, resulting in heightened economic activity.

In the 19th century, major technological advances led to the construction of a canal network and the development of a railroad system, which significantly improved overland and water transportation. This encouraged the growth of industrialization and the movement of populations towards urban centres. The Montréal region, a transportation hub that led the way in these initiatives, is recognized as the cradle of Canadian industry.

This thematic file invites you to discover the different periods marking the peopling of Québec in historic and prehistoric times in relation to the archaeological sites that reveal this past.

A few figures before starting…

Did you know that over 9 000 archaeological sites have been recorded by the Ministère de la Culture et des Communications in an inventory of Québec’s archaeological sites? In the “Inventaire des sites archéologique du Québec,” 60% of the listed sites are prehistoric or historic, 10% of the sites are Inuit-related and the remainder testify to the activity of Euro-Quebeckers.