ancestors still have much to teach us

Small courses of clear, cool water found various ways over a metre-high ledge of the reddish Potsdam sandstone.

Small courses of clear, cool water found various ways over a metre-high ledge of the reddish Potsdam sandstone.

A mallard hen guided her brood into the reeds of a backwater pool as I walked out as far as I could on the exposed rock without getting wet.

It was the last step down in the 25-metre drop of the St. Lawrence River from Lac St. Francois to Lac St. Louis.

A white tumble of waves much further out marked the main channel of this broad riverine entryway into the continent’s heartland.

Pointe du Buisson lies on the northern edge of Melocheville about 45 kilometres west from downtown Montreal. Quiet waters on either side of this small headland projecting into the St. Lawrence River, provided a portage point to begin or end the land trip around these rapids for millennia.

Historically abundant fish runs from sturgeon to eels drew aboriginal people there for longer seasonal stays.

A rich forest still dominates much of the high ground. Its diversity provided for most of the other needs of the early visitors to the site.

Shagbark hickory trees reach their northern limit here. Hickory nuts littered the pathway back up from the river.

An essential pull-out point with plentiful resources meant that this area consistently drew people to it. Archeological finds show that this site has been occupied for more than 5,000 years. This fact along with special activities planned during Quebec’s annual Archeological Month brought me out to the Pointe du Buisson Archeological Park for a visit in mid-August.

With bucket, trowel, 7.5-centimetre paintbrush and a tape measure in hand I headed out of the archeological laboratory in the park’s main pavilion along with several other folk.

We were guided to a girded off site well away from the park’s interpretive trail system.

For the next few hours under the tutelage of two University of Montreal graduate students we had a 50-by-50-centimetre quadrant to carefully excavate in five-centimetre increments. Quebec regulations allow up to four amateurs to dig under the guidance of one trained archeologist.

I only uncovered a couple of miniscule possible pottery chards. On the high ground nearer the river, though, one-metre-square dig units which normally reached 35 centimetres before the soil turns to clay have each yielded on average 655 pottery fragments, 268 lithic elements (flakes, tools) and 1,872 bone fragments according to information I was given.

More than 2 million artifacts have been catalogued at the 21-hectare park since organized digs began 40 years ago.

The hunter and gather societies that I was troweling for artifacts from still have a lot to teach us. Prominent anthropologists like Marshall Sahlins argue that these ancestors worked far fewer hours to support their lifestyles than we do in our modern capitalist consumer societies.  As a result they enjoyed more time free for family and recreation.

These non-hierarchical, egalitarian social structures where gender equality was a matter of necessity placed their priorities on human interactions rather than the material possessions. Arguably their path would have been psychologically far healthier than ours. We have much to learn from our ancestors.

A simpler lifestyle in which people were satisfied with less lead to what Sahlins refers to as the “original affluent society.” “To accept that hunters are affluent is therefore to recognize,” according to Sahlins, “that the present human condition of man slaving to bridge the gap between his unlimited wants and his insufficient means is a tragedy of modern times.”

Stephen Lewis to speak here

Stephen Lewis, former UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and social activist, will be speaking at the Yukon Convention Centre this coming Monday, September 15th at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets for this Blood Ties, Four Directions, Grandmothers to Grandmothers, and Yukon Development Education Centre sponsored event are available at Arts Underground.