Mitis Prehistory

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When the Google-Chronicle Telegraph project first appeared on my screen last autumn, soon to bring online early Quebec Gazette newspapers, the idea seemed novel, perhaps even a bit far-fetched. Having read through most of the Quebec Gazette from 1800 to 1873 on hard-copy and microfilm, I knew how the Gazette had brought news from the Lower St. Lawrence through the arrival of Branch pilots aboard upbound ships, particularly during the period 1764 - 1848. When landline telegraph was extended down to Father Point in 1848, now called Pointe-au-Père, news from Québec and beyond reached our area as never before. In this era of instantaneous communications, does news from the regions filter into the major city papers? With such an invaluable online historical source soon to be online, a few words from the Lower Saint Lawrence would be a timely introduction to our local bilingual paper, "Métis-sur-Mer News/Journal Métis-sur-Mer."

Many have read articles of early Mitis history by Ken Annett, Samuel Mathewson Baylis, William Stewart Wallace, Alice Sharples Baldwin plus pamphlets, booklets, papers and books by numerous less known authors. But few have read anything on our prehistory. In the following few lines, I'll attempt to present a brief outline of what Mitis was like prior to the European contact.

Some 18,000 years ago, the Laurentian glacier covered Mitis with several hundred metres of ice; ice that had built over a period of 1.8 million years. Such an immense quantity of ice caused the earth's crust to sink by more than 75 metres in the Mitis area. As the ice melted over the next few thousand years, salt water invaded the land, moving several kilometers inland, creating the Goldthwaite Sea (James Walter Goldthwaite 1880 - 1947). This slow warming trend was by no means continuous. Each of several glacial periods saw the advance of the glacier into the Goldthwaite Sea, followed by a retreat further than the one before.

With the disappearance of the glacier, post-glacial rebound took place, rising the land mass ever so slowly towards its present level. Ten thousand years ago, give or take a few hundred years, Mitis was covered by a sparse open tundra, due to a long, slow, warming trend. About 9,500 years ago, a climatic inversion, or decrease in temperature, occurred over a period of about a thousand years. By 8,000 years before present, the sparse tundra and taiga was back, with a few shrubs and the odd spruce and fir tree growing in valleys protected from the violent winds. The climate was dry and cold, with numerous storm-force gales, and frequent brush fires. Our maximum temperature rose to around 10C for a short period each summer. Even in such a severe environment, our beautiful area was visited by a few families of nomadic natives during these short weeks each summer.

But where did they come from? Did they paddle down the foaming Mitis River, or from the Maritimes, perhaps even further west. Were they from the Abenaki Nation of the northeast, or further west from the Plano culture of the recent paleoindian period? They weren't Mi'kmaq, as the northeast archaeologists mostly all agree that the earliest evidence of the Mi'kmaq was around 3,500 years ago. Their visible cultural signature is identified by the shape and size of their tools, their techniques of shaping, quality and finish, and by the lithic flakes and chips they left on site at the Price prehistoric archaeological site. But these artifacts create more questions than they funish answers.

None of the 10,300 artifacts found at the Price site in May and June of 2005 came from here. They originate from several of the dozen or so lithic quarries in Québec, mainly from Misstassini, Saint-Anne-des-Monts and the Ramah quarry in northern Labrador. Where, or by whom these lithics were collected, transported, bartered or exchanged remains unclear.

During the short, few weeks of their visits, they certainly weren't on summer vacation. Knapping tirelessly, they worked these stone performs into biface knives, projectile points, scrapers, punches and a dozen other tools, to replenish their ever diminishing assortment of hardware.

The site at Price consisted of four tipis, each used for different purposes: only the main tipi had a fire pit. The men generally sat on one side of the main tipi entrance, when not out hunting, shaping the lithics into knives, spear points and other tools, while the women, on the other side, created scrapers, punches and other utensils necessary for their activities. Even the children were busy making small, unrefined points in quartzite or chert (a microcrystalline sedimentary rock material).

Again, what brought them here? Was it strictly as a meeting place, a major traffic artery, or perhaps somewhere to change their diet. The salmon run, from the Goldthwaite Sea to Lake Mitis, seems a very plausible reason, since it was an abundant source of protein and an important food staple. Seal, sea-cow (walrus) and numerous other species were no doubt a part of their diet. But our natives ended their visits, a visit that lasted possibly more than a thousand years, with the falling levels of the Goldthwaite Sea, creating the Mitis falls at Price, over which the salmon were unable to jump.

With the departure of our native visitors some 7,000 years ago, evidence of early human presence becomes somewhat difficult to study. We can, however, take a peak of what the land looked like 10,000 years ago. Geomorphology, or the study of the evolution of the earth's crust, explains the existence of the Mi'kmaq terrace, a major coastal landform, extending from below Quebec City to Saint-Anne-des-Monts, formed during the interglacial period of the Sangamonian era some 80,000 to 220,000 years ago. In most places, it has the appearance of a collapsed escarpment, while in other places, it remains practically vertical. Generally, it is located anywhere from a few metres to several hundred metres back from the shoreline, as you can notice practically everywhere you drive along the coast. Averaging between 15 and 25 metres above present-day sea level, this cliff originated partly from the Cambrian-Ordovician bedrock of some 500 million years ago and partly from the clay and rocky deposits of more recent periods.

The Mitis terrace has been with us a little more than two thousand years, according to several dozen recent radiocardon-14 dates. Rising two to 5 metres above current high-tide levels, it slopes gently towards the river. It sits between the bottom of the former cliff and the inter-tidal shoreline, covering roughly the same distance along the coast as the Mi'kmaq terrace. This terrace was created mainly by deposits from the Goldthwaite Sea, and provides generally rich land for agriculture, inexpensive road construction and considerable human occupation.

Our natives having departed those 7,000 years ago, little more is known of the area, with the exception of several artifacts discovered during the last few hundred years. During the 1920's, George Sims found several unusual artifacts on his farm, which he mentioned to the archaeologist William John Wintemberg. This resulted in numerous detailed and descriptive writings exchanged between them. Then in 1932, Prefessor Henry Armstrong found a mallet or maul, while George H. Mathewson picked up a highly polished, fully grooved gouge, and also located two celts or axes of mudstone. Peter Francis Leggatt found a large, retouched Ramah quartzite knife, and Sir William Dawson two large, translucent chert bifaces. The former New Brunswick archaeologist, Christopher Turnbull and his wife Susan, found a tempered pottery sherd at the mouth of the Mitis River in 1972, as well as a stone end-scraper made from a chert flake, dating back to the late Woodland era, about 1,000 years A.D., possibly from the Tobique River of northern New Brunswick. More recently, a worker found a notched point, made of Ramah chert, near where the Mitis River pier used to be, originating from the furthest reaches of northern Labrador, dating back to around 3,500 years. Recently, the archaeologist Christian Gates Saint-Pierre, published a 15 page article, "Les collections archéologique préhistorique de la Gaspésie au Musée McCord", which identifies and explains several of the artifacts I mentioned above.

Few small villages and towns have such a wealth of detail prior to the European contact. As more research in this area is eventually carried out, the further back can we learn and understand what the area was like, as it developed into Métis-sur-Mer as we know it today.

In my next article, I'll introduce you to the Mitis seigniorial period covering 1675 - 1854 through our early archival heritage.

By Gilbert R. Bossé, [email protected]