Amid the sweeping prairie grasses of southwestern Minnesota are islands of uncovered rock, where American Indians left carvings - petroglyphs - of humans, deer, elk, buffalo, turtles, thunderbirds, atlatls and arrows for nearly 7,000 years. The glyphs served many functions, including recording important events and parables and depicting sacred ceremonies.
This ancient site is Jeffers Petroglyphs, one of the Minnesota Historical Society's network of historic sites. Guides lead visitors on paths through the outcropping of red quartzite where ancient cultures inscribed their art into the hard rock surface. Nature trails allow visitors to experience native prairie. Inside a 3,000-square-foot interpretive building, visitors can learn more about the site and its history through hands-on activities, exhibits and a dramatic multimedia presentation.
The site captivates the imagination and draws visitors centuries back in time. It is a place undoubtedly considered special by the various cultural groups who lived and traveled in the region. It is a living sacred site used by people for thousands of years. Many of those people whose ancestors are known to have lived in this area - the Iowa, Arapaho, Cheyenne and Dakota peoples - come to pray at this sacred site. Elders from these Nations, along with archaeologists, rock art conservators, botanists and MNHS staff members, guide the public interpretation and preservation of the site. Elders teach that Jeffers Petroglyphs tells the story of the survival of people in a formidable environment for thousands of years, and that many of the carvings represent helping spirits. The site speaks of their deep, ancient and present-day connection with the land and their creator.
Mysteries remain about what each "glyph" represents and about those who left them. The most common archeological technique of dating the glyphs is identifying the items depicted, then relating them to peoples of a particular time period. By this technique, they appear to range from 5000 B.C. to A.D. 1750.
The earliest known group, a semi-nomadic people who fished the small lakes, hunted bison and made seasonal camps, used simple tools and employed atlatls for propelling their stone-pointed spears. These tools are represented in glyphs, but interestingly, the stones do not record bows and arrows, which gradually replaced atlatls, about 500 to 600 A.D. Also "missing" are glyphs representing horses, indicating that the site was no longer used by the late 1700s, although rock art from later times is prevalent. The most numerous glyphs are pictures of holy men and other human figures, deer, elk, buffalo, turtles, thunderbirds and atlatls.
French explorer Pierre-Charles Le Sueur made the earliest known European contact with the Dakota and Iowa living in what is now southwestern Minnesota in 1700. He described the Dakota living in homes made "from several buffalo hides, dressed and sewed together and they take wherever they go." They gave Le Sueur "bison and deer meat in wooden dishes with wild rice seasoned with sun-dried blueberries.
The farms that dot the region today have groves that break the ever-present prairie winds. But looking out over the landscape, one can easily imagine rolling grassland interrupted by a wind-swept red rock ridge where rare clover and prickly-pear cactus push out of the thin soil.