Fascinatingaccounts of our past
Reviewed by /Compte-rendu par Michel Lapalme
in the / qui aparu dans le Ottawa Citizen
5/8/99
 
In the beginning, there was the sterility of thousands of years ofgreat continental glaciers sleeping comfortably over all of Quebec. Then,nature witnessed a spectacular dynamism, especially between 12,000 and6,000 years ago. The old bedrock, so long pushed down by the weight ofthe ice and then by the assault of the Atlantic ocean in the form of theChamplain Sea, gradually rid itself of its white cloak which melted underan intense sun, rose, and pushed back the brackish waters to their naturalbasin. New drainage patterns established themselves and pollen invadedthe post glacial deserts, inviting plants and animals to come and definetheir paradise. 

This is how the Outaouais was born. But what Outaouais? This is a questionthat generations of amateurs and scientists have worked on, gathering artifactsfor museums and private collections while exploring sites along the Outaouais,the Gatineau and the Rideau rivers. 

In preparing a most revealing publication entitled Ottawa Valley Prehistory,the Outaouais Historical Society asked a variety of contributors underthe direction of Jean-Luc Pilon, from the Canadian Museum of Civilization,to provide a fresh view of our past, between those first melting days andthe arrival of Europeans on our land. 

The results are such that one would expect the short (113-page) bilingualpublication to be found on every teacher's desk and on those of most ofthe students as well. 

I always marvel how, after decades of research, the meticulous and painstakingefforts of archeologists, digging by hand and screening minute portionsof territory for entire seasons, generate fabulous visions of our pastas this book does. 

When the ice cover melted, before the floor of the valley started rising,the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean covered everything south of Pembroke,including the Rideau Lakes, and reached the height of Kingsmere, at 690feet above sea level. Consequently, 12,000 years ago, Indians could notreach most of the Outaouais, but they could advance gradually during thenext 6,000 years as the vegetation started to come back over the warmerland and salt water gradually receded into the ocean. 

Reading the accounts of archeologists about those times, we encountermammoths, mastodons, grizzly bears and several kinds of whales, porpoisesand seals. 

It is fascinating to follow the writers through that period and immediatelyafter, when they identify small groups of Indians (maybe 100 groups fora total of 2,500 Indians between Lake of Two Mountains and Lake Nipissing6,000 years ago) and discuss their relationships with other populations.One of the most striking descriptions is their exploration of MorrisonIsland, site of 20 burials and several workshops. Archeologists describethe site as seasonally visited, probably before winter. The workshops speakof hunters, fishermen, sewers, wood and stone workers. The main surprisecomes with the discovery on this island and on Allumette Island of thegreatest amount of copper tools ever found for that period (around 5,000years ago) on any site. The copper seems to have come from Lake Superior,1,000 kilometres away. Archeologists use these findings to transport usto the daily lives of ancient people. 

This is just a short glimpse of a publication that also reviews thework done at many other sites over an area covering most of the territorydefined as the Champlain Sea. This includes, of course, Lake Leamy where,after less than 10 years, the promises remain extraordinary, because ofthe way the numerous identified sites have been periodically flooded. Thesilt protected the remains of many populations which often carried distinctearthen pots, allowing for precise group and period identifications. 

The last pages are devoted to the The Bird's Rock, a 150-metre granitecliff along the Outaouais, above Allumette Island and across Chalk River.There, rock climbers can observe "the most interesting pictograms yet foundin Quebec," eight paintings that have been tentatively dated as some 3,000years old. 

A mythologist and a historian are making a combined attempt to providea coherent and educated interpretation of what it may have representedfor the Indians roaming the valley a millennium before Christ. This bringsus closer to intuitive knowledge rather than to science, but it providesa fascinating end to a voyage in a world full of mysteries and clues.


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