Buffalo Eddy History

Long before Europeans or Americans first set foot in this country, the ancestors of the nimí•pu• (Nez Perce) created densly grouped clusters of petroghlyphs and a few pictographs on either side of an eddy formed by a series of sharp bends in the Snake River. These images provide links to the past, reminding us of the timeless connection humans have to this land.

Known as Buffalo Eddy, the site takes its name from images on the Idaho side of the river, depicting bison chased by Indians on horse back. The unique petroglyphs of this area are evidence of the longevity of the nimí•pu• in the region and contain hundreds of distinct images that possibly date from as early as 4,500 years ago.

 
A petrogyplph of a horned animal, possibly a sheep, on a red rock.
Petroglyph of what could perhaps be a sheep on the Washington side of Buffalo Eddy.

National Park Service

What is a Petroglyph?

Petroglyphs are made by removing the outer weathered surface of rock to reveal the unweathered rock underneath. This is done by pecking, rubbing, scratching, or incising the surface with a harder rock, such as quartzite.

There are several styles of petroglyphs at Buffalo Eddy. Some are naturalistic with human figures and animals such as big horn sheep, elk, and deer. Some stick figures at the site hold an item that looks like a dumbell that may represent a double headed rattle or paddle. Groups of naturalistic animals and humans in a single panel appear to tell a story related to hunting. Still others consist of abstract designs and patterns that include dots, circles and triangles.

What is a Pictograph?

Whereas petroglyphs are literally scratched into rock, pictographs are made by painting or drawing on the rock surface with pigments. These pigments were made from minerals that could be found in the area. The pigment was turned into something akin to paint by mixing the pigment with water, urine, blood, saliva, raw egg, or animal fat. These binders help the minerals adhere to the rock. The pigment was applied with fingers or a brush type implement. Over time this pigment actually becomes a part of the rock.

 
Rock with densely clustered petroglyphs - mostly dots and spirals.
This panel of densely clustered petroglyphs can be found at Buffalo Eddy.

National Park Service

Dating Rock Art

The subject matter of rock art can often help determine a possible age. For example, the nimí•pu• obtained the horse as early as 1630, therefore pictograph panels containing horses were probably made after that date.

Rock art showing an ancient hunting tool called an atlatl, used prior to the introduction of the bow and arrow, would suggest an age of at least 2,000 years. In some cases datable artifacts like an arrowhead found at the base of a partially buried rock art panel, can suggest a minimum date for the art. The petroglyphs that consist of abstract designs and patterns that include dots, circles and triangles, are considered to be the oldest at Buffalo Eddy.

There have been many advances in research to date rock art through scientific analyses. Some petroglyphs can be dated based on an analysis of the weathered varnishes or patination that forms over rocks as they age. This method compares the varnish layers from the unpecked surface with the varnish of a pecked surface. Pictographs are dated by testing very small samples of the pigment removed from the surface of the rock.

 
Rock with large petroglyphs of what appear to be stick figures - some are holding items that look somewhat like dumbbells.
What meanings do you see etched into the Snake River stone?

National Park Service

What Do These Images Mean?

The petroglyps and pictographs at Buffalo Eddy reflect a rich and long-ago culture. Anthropologists who study rock art can often find patterns in the symbols that are found in the Columbia River Basin, and can make educated guesses on why symbols were painted or pecked into rock faces. Perhaps the figures and symbols are a form of storytelling or an expression of spirituality. They could even be a form of artistic expression.

While scientists can make assumptions, ultimately no one but their creators know for sure the exact significance of the images. We cannot hope to reconstruct the day of their creation. Was it done through a shaman's chants and intricate dance steps during an elaborate ceremony, or during a moment of introspection experienced by solitary visitors? All we have is the silent testimony of ancient images to pique our imaginaiton, and every person who sees them today takes away their own meanings.

Respecting Sacred Ground

These ancient petroglyphs are sacred to the nimí•pu• and protected by federal law. Although the art remains fairly well preserved, it takes only one senseless act of vandalism to destroy this fragile resource. The digging, collection, or damaging of these resources is a felony office punishable by fines up to $100,000 or imprisonment or both. Please help us protect and respect Buffalo Eddy by taking only photographs and leaving only footprings so that generations of visitors to come will be able to experience them.

  • Leave petroglyphs as you found them. Do not etch or paint over them, pry them away from the bedrock, or disturb them in any other way.
  • Digging in the area or collecting rocks is not allowed at this site.
  • Metal dector use is strictly prohibited here and throughout the entire park.
  • Please do not litter.
  • Report any damage or suspected violation to the National Park Service at (208) 843-7009 or email us.
 
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Visit Buffalo Eddy

Plan your visit to a site that contains hundreds of unique petroglyphs that possibly date from as early as 4,500 years ago.

Last updated: February 17, 2018

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

Nez Perce National Historical Park
39063 US Hwy 95

Lapwai, ID 83540-9715

Phone:

(208) 843-7009

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