While Idaho’s ruins and ancient artifacts are no match for the behemoth figures of the Eastern Hemisphere, our archaeological finds are impressive in their own regard. Tools, artwork, and fragmented remains gradually reveal our state’s primitive, ancient, and Native American histories, inciting curiosity with every new piece of the puzzle. While too vast and numerous to list below, many of these discoveries (and thousands more) are preserved at the
Idaho Museum of Natural History for your in-person viewing and educational pleasure.
1. An Ancient Gathering Place
A secluded forest riverbank in Northern Idaho made headlines in 2014 when archaeologists uncovered evidence of human presence dating back more than 12,000 years. The excavation site is at Kelly Creek, near the Clearwater River. Discoveries included blade-like tools, fishing implements, and what is known as "debitage," or the flakes left over from the tool-making process. Relics from every single Northwest archaeological time period have been uncovered, and for this reason, the site is now thought to be an area where various tribes would stop to refresh and sharpen their instruments.
In 1989, highway workers unearthed human skeletal remains of a Paleoindian woman near Buhl. Her age at death was determined to be 17-21 years old, and her remains were found in addition to an eyed stone needle and a large stemmed biface (a type of hand axe). Nicknamed Buhla because of her location, the remains fell upon Shoshone land and were claimed by the Shoshone-Bannock tribe before further analysis could take place, as per state law. Radiocarbon dating placed the woman around 11,000 years old.
3. Priest Lake Pictographs
Pictographs are a type of aboriginal artwork made on rock surfaces with colors most commonly obtained from vegetable dyes. These priceless images are scattered throughout Idaho, but are found primarily north of the Snake River -- the most infamous being the large Priest Lake Indian Pictographs which can be toured by boat. Thought to have been made by the Kalispel tribe, legend has it that a young priest intervened to prevent bloodshed between two quarreling Indians and was thrown from the cliff. His death is said to be recorded in the painting shown above.
These images are of vast historical significance due to their evolutionary recording of local eating habits, tribe interactions, and hunting practices.
4. Wilson Butte Burial Strata
The Wilson Butte Cave has been a archaeologist's dream since its discovery in 1958. It has since come to document through its stratified layers what is still thought to be the oldest record of human occupation in the Snake River Plain. The deepest layers of the cave house primarily animal bone fragments, but the layers show increasing presence of ancient human development from primitive survival to long-term shelter. Fire hearths, tools, and projectile points fill these middle layers, until a gradual shift towards recreation shows layers of primitive dice, beads, clothing ornamentation, and pottery.
5. The Nampa Figurine
In 1889, Nampa became the center of controversy when drill workers discovered a small clay figurine in sediments brought up from 300 feet below the surface. The figure, later called the "Nampa Image" or "Nampa Figurine," measures 48 mm long and is modeled in the shape of a human with a visible head and appendages. Some claim it to be the most important discovery in the Northwest to date, while skeptics have considered the figurine a hoax -- its depth and formation suggests an ancient civilization far more advanced than previously thought possible. Today the miniature is a historical curiosity.
For more information, check out the Smithsonian's Bureau of American Ethnology.
6. Idaho Petroglyphs
Dating as far back as 10,000 years ago, new Native American petroglyphs are being continuously discovered across the state, and continue to reveal new peeks into Idaho's Paiute history. Rather than painted, petroglyphs are carved into rock surfaces and can depict anything from hunting parties and maps to geometric symbols of unknown meaning. Celebration Park in Melba -- Idaho's only archaeological park -- was the location of the most recent discovery of a new wall of petroglyphs, which were revealed after a nearby wildfire. Modern-day mapping is preserving these ruinous art records for future generations.
7. 70,000 Year Old Mammoth
A prehistoric mammoth was revealed just outside of American Falls in 2014 during the dry season. While the remains of camels, bison, saber-toothed cats and other large animals have been uncovered over the years, excavators have not yet unearthed the entirety of this incredible find. Pictured is the Cooper's Ferry excavation, another dig still in progress.
8. 19th Century Charcoal Kilns
While not the product of primitive peoples, these century-old beehive kilns near the ghost town of Bayhorse are just a few of the many dotted around Idaho as remnants of Idaho's early mining days. They were used to produce charcoal, which was then used to smelt precious mined metals out of the surrounding ore. When ore prices took a dive, the kilns were abandoned and now remain as eerie homages to a once-thriving history.
Incredible! Idaho’s history is just beneath the surface (and sometimes above it), but it’s always amazing when something is revealed that raises new possibilities and questions about our past.
How many of Idaho’s museums have you been to? Do you have a favorite exhibit or archaeological piece?