UQAM and Pointe-à-Callière develop an original and innovative approach to detailing the nature of human activities at Fort Ville-Marie

© Michel Julien / Pointe-à-Callière

For immediate release

How can microbiologists confirm archaeologists’ hypotheses?


(Montréal, April 23, 2024) – Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and Pointe-à-Callière, Montréal’s archaeology and history complex, are very proud to announce that a joint team has successfully developed a new scientific approach that will change the way archaeological soils are studied, furthering knowledge of past human activities. The project carried out in 2022-2023 on the very important archaeological site of Fort Ville-Marie, constructed in 1642, has helped decipher certain secrets buried in the soil at Montréal’s birthplace.

Combining microbiology and paleomicrobiology techniques, the new approach is based on the detection of fossilized DNA—as opposed living DNA—as a marker of human activity. More specifically, the methodology developed—built on the identification of ancient microbial populations in the archaeological soils—allows researchers to make inferences about specific human activities during a given period. As bacteria are closely linked to their environment, they are directly associated with the human activities that took place around them. Once an analysis is completed, the results are compared to artifacts and ecofacts to confirm or disprove the archaeologists’ hypotheses. This is the very first time this method has been applied to archaeological soils!

With this atypical partnership, the combined knowledge of UQAM and Pointe-à-Callière has produced unprecedented results in furthering the understanding of past human activity and of archaeological sites. These initial results suggest the possibility of a broad range of applications, not just for Fort Ville-Marie, but eventually, for all archaeological sites… and much more!

A project that opens new perspectives

The research was led by Cassandre Lazar, a microbiologist and professor in UQAM’s Department of Biological Sciences, and Marjorie Collette, a master’s student in Biology, in collaboration with Hendrik Van Gijseghem, an archaeologist at Pointe-à-Callière. “When Pointe-à-Callière’s team of archaeologists contacted me in 2019, I saw it as an exceptional and stimulating opportunity to make advances in the field of paleomicrobiology as it applies to archaeology. Despite significant technical and financial challenges, we have obtained unprecedented information on traces of microbial communities, which offer a reinterpretation of the history of the founding of Montréal. I have high hopes that the methodology developed over the course of this project will be of use in multiple other archaeological studies.” Cassandre Lazar, microbiologist and professor UQAM

Initial results from this new approach support some of the Pointe-à-Callière archaeologists’ hypotheses about past activities at Fort Ville-Marie.

For example, the identification of bacterial communities associated with:

  • tobacco cultivation, furthering the idea that tobacco consumption was high in the fort, supported by pipe fragments found on the site.
  • animal butchery, confirming that butchery work did indeed take place at Fort Ville-Marie, or perhaps even before it was founded, by First Nations groups.
  • mining and fiery areas, perhaps supporting further archaeological research on the potential presence of a forge and a metal workshop on the site.

The results of this study have already elicited further considerations among the team, regarding the possible existence of vegetable gardens within the confines of the fort and the cultivation of medicinal plants. In-depth research promises to reveal new information on the cultural and economic practices of the fort’s occupants, as well as about periods predating the fort, such as that of the Champlain Sea more than 13,000 years ago!

“The simple fact that we can make a distinction between the DNA of fossilized organisms and those that are still alive, in layers of datable archaeological soils, opens a whole new window on our knowledge of ancient human activities and ecosystems. By and large, bacterial communities can shed new light on aspects of the past about which archaeological data is silent or, at best, equivocal. This is an all-new way of interpreting archaeological contexts, and I would not be surprised to see this type of analysis become the standard practice in archaeology, perhaps even worldwide.” Hendrik Van Gijseghem, PhD, Archaeology and History Projects Manager, Pointe-à-Callière

The proven application of this methodology at Fort Ville-Marie confirms its potential for archaeology and introduces new perspectives on our understanding of the past. In the coming months—and even years— the teams will get to assess the full scope of this discovery.

This project was made possible through a contribution by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).


Open and daring, the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) is a Francophone public university with more than 35,000 students and some 300,000 graduates. It offers over 350 programs of study, several of which are unique in Québec, Canada, and North America, attached to the School of Management (ESG UQAM) or to one of its six faculties: arts, communication, political science and law, science, educational science, and humanities. In addition to its campus in downtown Montréal, at the heart of the “knowledge economy,” UQAM offers comprehensive study programs as well as several other programs in its four campuses located in metropolitan areas. Since it was founded in 1969, the quality of its teaching, its research activities focused on social concerns, and its scientific and artistic innovation have contributed to its renown, here at home and around the world. UQAM ranks first in Québec and sixth in Canada in the category of general-purpose universities, according to Research Infosource.


Inaugurated in 1992, on the city’s 350th anniversary, Pointe-à-Callière is today the largest archaeology museum in Canada and the busiest history museum in Montréal. Rising above a concentrated number of historic and archaeological sites of national significance—including the birthplace of Montréal—, the Museum has a mission to preserve its collections and to further knowledge, while showcasing and fostering an appreciation for Montréal’s archaeological and historical heritage. This mission is carried out through various activities focused on conservation, research, presentation, education, and inclusion, along with community initiatives benefiting both Montrealers and visitors to the city. Pointe-à-Callière, proud partner of the city of Montréal.

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