Les secrets de nos ancêtres

The skeletons of our ancestors have many secrets to reveal. Through bioarchaeology, we can study the health, origins and evolution of the populations that came before us, taking into account their environmental, social and historical contexts.

The osteological analysis of the skeletal remains revealed a host of information.

The work of Isabelle Ribot, research professor of anthropology at Université de Montréal, falls within this realm. The researcher is studying the population of Montréal's Notre-Dame Cemetery, which houses remains dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. This venture was made possible by new prospecting techniques such as magnetic prospecting, which allowed the graves to be located without extensive excavations. Isabelle Ribot's research team was assisted by Peter Leach, specialist in archaeological geophysical prospection, who applied these methods in searching for the burial sites. No previous mention of this type of work being carried out in Québec can be found in the literature. 

The osteological analysis of the skeletal remains, similar to that conducted by medical examiners, revealed a host of information. It confirmed that bread was the staple food of Montrealers at that time. Corn was rarely eaten, despite being widely available across the American continent. The low levels of protein in the diet indicate that the population was largely poor. A difference in protein levels is observed when these bones are compared with samples from one of Québec's English cemeteries: the latter population, clearly richer, ate more meat.

These results are presented at the Château Ramezay Museum until November 11, 2012, as part of the exhibition "In the Time of Smallpox - Physicians, Surgeons and Apothecaries in New France". A skeleton has been reconstructed for the occasion, and the pathologies and dietary deficiencies that marked it are explained to the public.

The researcher has also published articles in Recherches amérindiennes au Québec, Bulletins et mémoires de la Société d'Anthropologie de Paris and the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.