Archaeologists Study Early Whaling Community in Quebec, Canada

For over a decade, Smithsonian's Arctic Studies Center archaeologist, William Fitzhugh, has been investigating an early European whaling site at Hare Harbor in Québec, Canada. The site has revealed important contact and trading relationships between the Inuit peoples of Northern Canada and the European Basque Whalers of France and Spain.

Researchers have discovered large piles of ballast, butchered whalebones, and other cultural materials like ceramic vessels, roof tiles, and barrel parts at an underwater site in Hare Harbor. Here, divers Frederic Simard and Erik Phaneuf display two two ceramic vessels that were found during in an underwater excavation in 2007.

Credit: Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center


Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center

Basque Whalers Background

Having already learned to hunt large whales in the Bay of Biscay in the 13th through 15th centuries, Basques began arriving in the rich whaling grounds of southern Labrador, Newfoundland, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the 1520s and by the 1530s had established whaling stations throughout the Gulf of St. Lawrence. By 1600, Basque fortunes had declined as the center of commerce and whaling shifted to Arctic regions. Basque whalers then shipped out with Dutch whaling expeditions to Greenland and Spitsbergen, Norway.

In the late 1600s, Basque ships returned to Hare Harbor. The first archaeological evidence of this second wave of Basque activity came with a discovery near Harrington Harbor. In 2001 Smithsonian archaeologists located Basque remnants at Hare Harbor on Petit Mécatina. Excavations between 2002 through 2011 have shown that this site was a whaling and fishing station occupied by Basque and Inuit assistants ca. 1680-1730. Archaeologists uncovered a cookhouse, a blacksmith shop, and the remains of several Inuit winter houses (above right). In the harbor, an underwater site contained large piles of ballast, butchered whalebones and other cultural materials like ceramic vessels, roof tiles and barrel parts. 


Underwater Excavations
After Wilson Evans of Harrington Harbor found ballast piles and Basque artifacts on the sea floor at Hare Harbor, Smithsonian archaeologists began excavations to explore this new source of information. Such finds tend to be better preserved by constantly frigid seawater than by seasonal changes on land. Mapping revealed several large rock piles where ships unloaded ballast rock while taking on whale oil, fish, and perhaps timber. The underwater archaeological stratigraphy – a process archeologists use to help date materials by identifying soil layers – showed the deepest levels contained wood chips, possibly the residue of site construction. The second level contained large whale bones, marking a period when whales were caught and processed. The third level, the top-most, was full of codfish bones. This means that after whales had declined, people turned to processing fish for the commercial market in Europe.


Early Native Cultures 


Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center

Smithsonian surveys along the Lower North Shore have revealed evidence of a long history of Native American occupation, beginning with the Maritime Archaic Indian culture beginning 8,000 years ago. Their later descendants of 3,500 years ago built longhouses with multiple family rooms that have been found at Mécatina Cove.

A cache of stone blades discovered at Kegaska indicates that early Innu peoples living here ca. 1000 AD were in contact with peoples of Ramah Bay in northern Labrador.  At right, the Arctic Studies Center's Lauren Marr displays an ancient Maritime Archaic Indian point made of Ramah Chert.

About 2,500 years ago cold climate brought the first Inuit peoples into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Early Eskimo groups, known as Groswater Dorset, occupied many sites along the Lower North Shore, and as far west as Cape Whittle. With warming climates these Eskimo groups retreated north and were replaced with Innu (Indian) peoples. 



Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center

Inuit at Mécatina

In the 1500s when Basque whalers were active, Inuit conducted raids in Southern Labrador and the Strait of Belle Isle to get iron, boats, and other European materials. However, their ancestral homes remained in central and northern Labrador. After Basques departed, Inuit began moving into the Strait of Belle Island and into Québec, establishing winter villages at Brador, Belles Amours, and Petit Mécatina where they begin working for Basques at Petit Mécatina.




Inuit tragedy uncovered at the site: In 2008, excavations revealed the burned remains of an early 18th century Labrador Inuit winter house directly beneath the floor of the Basque blacksmith shop. By 1700 some groups of Inuit were being employed as hunters and camp assistants by the Basques at Hare Harbor. One winter soon after the Basque station had been established, the Basques returned to Europe, leaving an Inuit family behind to guard their station. Sometime that winter French and Indians attacked. According to a report from 1729 all were killed except an Inuit woman and a young boy, who were sent to Québec. Archaeologists surmise that later in the summer of 1729, when the Basque returned, they found their Inuit family dead. Over the remains of the Inuit house, they subsequently built a blacksmith shop. Indian and Europeans soon pushed other Inuit groups out of the Gulf and north into central Labrador. In the 18th/19th centuries, a few Inuit families returned to the Gulf and settled in St. Augustine and neighboring towns.



The Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center (ASC), established in 1988, is the only U.S. government program with a special focus on northern cultural research and education. The center is a part of the Department of Anthropology in the National Museum of Natural History. Having pursued northern studies since the 1850s, the Smithsonian possesses one of the world’s finest anthropological collections from Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. Research at the ASC seeks to bring its researchers together with community scholars in the collaborative exploration of the cultural heritage represented in these impressive collections. 

Whales, Arctic, Maritime history, Whaling, Smithsonian scientists, Native people

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