Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
April 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Prehistory of Canada


[This article was publihed in 1948; for the full citation, see the end of the text]

Prehistory. When human history in Canada began, is a matter of conjecture. There are those who have attempted to prove that man in America antedated the lee Ages. There is no doubt that American mastodons of pre-glacial times must have migrated to America from Asia by way of the land bridge that once existed between Siberia and Alaska ; and if mastodons found their way over this land bridge, why not man? On the other hand, no sure proof of the existence of man in America before the Ice Age has been found; and if there were men in Canada before the Ice Age, it is certain that they could not have survived the Ice Age, in Canada at least. Until proof of the contrary is forthcoming, therefore, it must be assumed that the history of man in Canada does not begin until post-glacial times.


The inhabitants of Canada , before the coming of the Europeans, were what we know now as Indians - a name bestowed on them as a result of the mistaken belief of the early explorers that the West Indies were the East Indies. For a time, it was thought that the Indians were not the original in­habitants of America, but were preceded by a race known as "the Mound Builders" - so called from the burial mounds found in many parts of the United States. It is now believed however, that these mounds were built by the Indians themselves, and not by any prior race. It is thus probable that the Indians were the first human inhabitants of America ; and the theory has been advanced that they were indigenous to America. Certainly, the similarity be­tween the languages of the American, Indian and those spoken in other parts of the world is slight. But the evidence of anthropology seems to suggest that the Indian migrated originally from Asia. His racial characteristics are Mongoloid; and many of his cultural characteristics are Mongoloid also. Even the linguistic evidence suggests an Asiatic origin; for it has recently been demonstrated that there are similarities between some of the Indian languages and primitive Chinese, not in words, but in the system whereby the same words in different "tones" have widely different meanings. There are also suggestive similarities between Indian music and primitive Chinese music.


If, as seems certain, the Indians of Canada came originally from Asia, it is probable that they came by way of the land bridge that formerly existed between Siberia and Alaska; though it is by no means impossible that they may have come after the land connection was broken, for even to-day the passage across Bering strait by way of the Aleutian islands is not impossible for primitive craft, and there are well­authenticated cases of Chinese and Japanese junks having been blown ashore on the coast of north-western America. It is, indeed, possible that the Indians of South America may have come originally from Polynesia by way of the South Sea islands, or by way of a land connection which may have once existed between Polynesia and South America. But, however they may have come, there is now little doubt that the American Indians came originally from Asia.


The Eskimo, who inhabit the northern fringe of the North American continent, used to be thought a different race from the Indians. But recent investigation has shown that they too are of Mongoloid origin, and probably entered America by way of Bering strait. Their language has affinities with Turkish, Hungarian, and Finnish, rather than with the languages of other American tribes - a fact which suggests that they may have been a later migration. But they are in origin not essentially different from the other inhabitants of Canada in prehistoric times.


The aborigines of Canada never developed, except in a most primitive and rudimentary way, the art of writing. Consequently, our knowledge of them, during the many thousands of years which elapsed before the coming of the Europeans and the dawn of written history, is slight. It is mainly derived from the researches of archaeologists. These have made it clear that in some parts of the Americas the Indians developed a considerable civilization. The Indians of South and Central America constructed magnificent stone buildings, the ruins of many of which are still standing; they understood the working of the softer metals; they made elaborate and artistic pottery; and they seem to have known something of surgery and of astronomy. The Indians of Canada, however, remained much more primitive. Their clothing was the skin of animals; and they lived on the fruits of the chase. Few of them cultivated the soil; and these grew only Indian corn or maize, planted in the natural clearings of the forest. They were still, at the coming of the white man, in the nomadic stage of society, one tribe warring with another for its hunting-grounds; and we can only guess at the widespread movements of population that must have taken place in Canada in prehistoric times. Even after the coming of the first European explorers, there were profound changes of habitat among the Indians with regard to which our information is negligible. The history of the Indian inhabitants of Canada before the coming of the white man is, and will probably always remain, an almost impenetrable mystery. See S. Leacock, The dawn of Canadian history (Toronto, 1914).

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College